Bay Street magnate fights for the poor
TheStar.com – GTA – Bay Street magnate fights for the poor: As economy worsens, son of privilege crusades to ensure funding to aid the homeless isn’t lost
December 17, 2008. Donovan Vincent, CITY HALL BUREAU
John Andras is known as the “suit” in a business where T-shirts and jeans are the norm.
When the Bay Street investment manager meets with anti-poverty activists he’s usually in a jacket and tie because he’s come from work.
“I am what I am. I don’t feel what you wear makes a difference about who you are, what your ideas are, or what you have to say,” he says.
Andras has worked extensively on anti-poverty initiatives over the years, mostly behind the scenes. But with a recession on, he believes it’s time to be more visible.
It seems an odd fit for a privileged son who attended Upper Canada College and now graces Bay Street as the senior vice-president of the investment firm Research Capital.
For Andras, 49, the influential moment came nearly 30 years ago, when he took a year off university to work in a mine in Red Lake, Ont.
“At that time a lot of the miners were ex-cons and people who couldn’t fit into the urban environment. A lot were illiterate. I had been to university so they called me `professor.’ I ended up teaching some of them how to read.”
He learned something, too: that luck and circumstance can make a big difference in how life turns out.
“It was eye-opening for me, because up to that point I’d lived a sheltered, privileged existence.”
His prominent father, K.B. (Kenneth Bertram) Andras, was a founder of Care Canada.
“Dad believed that one would be ultimately judged not by how wealthy and famous you were, but by how much you gave back to society,” says Andras.
The married father of two is a past president of the Rotary Club of Toronto and chair of SKETCH, an art studio for street youth.
A decade ago, when there was a disturbing cluster of homeless deaths, Andras helped found the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC). It pushed successfully to have homelessness declared a “national disaster.” Ottawa appointed a minister responsible for fighting homelessness and devoted more than $1 billion to the problem.
In 1993, Andras and two partners started Project Warmth, which over seven years collected 150,000 sleeping bags for Toronto’s street dwellers. The program ended in large part because he and others didn’t want it to become “institutionalized,” he says.
“We did not want to let governments permanently off the hook by providing inadequate Band-Aids that would keep people alive, but would in no way address the underlying causes and issues,” he says.
He believes Toronto’s poor are actually in a worse situation now than when Project Warmth began: “Welfare rates were recently increased 3 per cent, since they were cut 22 per cent in 1995. Inflation has been a lot more than 3 per cent during that period of time, so people on social assistance are worse off.”
Cathy Crowe, another co-founder of the relief committee, says Andras is “uniquely positioned” to make an impact in the war on poverty. “Because of his location on Bay Street and who he is as a person, he has been able to bridge many worlds when it comes to homelessness: the business and corporate world that care, foundations that provide crucial funding, and all political parties who should be doing something more than talking,” says Crowe.
Andras and about 30 others recently met to strategize on pushing Ottawa to create a “recession relief fund.” They’re worried that deficit-laden governments will cut spending to agencies that help the poor.
Among the group’s demands:
Double federal funding in the Homelessness Partnership Initiative, a program that funds city efforts to combat homelessness.
Don’t cut funding to public and private not-for-profit agencies that serve the homeless and vulnerable.
“What we’re doing,” Andras says, “is trying to put together a broad-based coalition to pressure Ottawa to realize there’s a looming crisis among the most vulnerable in our society, and that unless something is done at the government level, there’s no way the private sector can pick up the slack.”