The Creation of City Wide Commons

When the pandemic hit, Family Service Toronto (FST) quickly adapted by adopting a hybrid model which ultimately led them to occupy just  a quarter of their previous space at 355 Church Street. 

According to FST Executive Director Chris Brillinger (they/them), it was serendipity. Once FST realized their future was hybrid work and service delivery, they saw that they could shrink their space footprint. Instead of simply downsizing City Wide Commons was created. FST took a different approach to space, building a hub of “organizations collaborating on service provision and committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture.” 

FST also chose a different model of property ownership or landlord. Chris Brillinger says they envisioned FST to be a “trust holder” for City Wide Commons rather than property holders. Their building became a community asset. In a short time, FST flipped our typical real estate system and model of property ownership into a spatial justice approach. The space would belong to people collectively.

City Wide Commons has emerged as an example of how to practically examine how we own and use physical space in the City of Toronto. FST asked how do we take this incredibly precious resource and broaden its impact? How can we make the most effective use of this space and make sure those have access to its benefits? City Wide Commons is held by its trust holders on behalf of the communities they serve. Six agencies work together and to evolve a collective, focused on being responsible to their communities. 

The first agency connected with FST is Madison Community Services (MCS), led by Executive Director Chama Chongo. MCS provides supportive housing, case management and other support services for adults managing mental health challenges and difficulty with substance use. MCS’s current lease was coming to an end and like many community service providers in Toronto they were having trouble securing new space. On top of that, like other mental health service providers they have experienced space discrimination in the rental and property market. Finding new space was a challenge.

Enter City Wide Commons. FST offered them a welcome new home within the building. 

Then came Toronto Newcomer Women’s Services (TNWS), an agency that supports newcomer women and their families to establish themselves in Canada by facilitating access to social and economic opportunities, led by Executive Director Sara Asalya. From here, they welcomed Bereaved Families of Ontario - Toronto (BFO Toronto) led by Executive Director Sarah Garcia-Heller, a safe place for those on their grief journey. The Teresa Group led by Executive Director Rejesh Pisharody offers support and practical assistance to families facing financial challenges compounded by HIV or AIDS. The final partner Hard Feelings provides low-cost counseling and mental health resources, led by Executive Director Kate Scowen.

Together, these six organizations form City Wide Commons, providing an incredible set of services in one place for community members: counseling services, settlement services, mental health supports, HIV & AIDS support services, seniors support services, grief support services, family support services, and community development programs.

The group works together based on equitable practices, taking a decolonization approach in their work, inherently connected to spatial justice. City Wide Commons partners work with the City’s marginalized populations, acknowledging that our social and economic system does its best to grow inequity. 

FST is 110 years old, and in many ways it could be the poster child of historically based social-services. Not only were they the only placement for the first graduating class of social workers from University of Toronto in 1916, but they have received the largest single allocation from United Way’s funding. A huge privilege. As an organization that “owns” space, they were given an opportunity to reflect on how to modify their connection to ownership. They took this opportunity to become more than landlords, rethinking what a building could be through the lens of spatial justice connected to a wider concept of ownership and community service.

As the City Wide Commons tagline indicates, they created a space for both community service organizations and the people they serve to connect, belong, and thrive.


City Wide Commons Brochure

Family Services Toronto

Newcomer Women’s Services Toronto

Madison Community Services

The Teresa Group

Hard Feelings

Bereaved Families Toronto