Pandemic social services reduced/cancelled

We cannot aim for a “return to normal”  —  a more equitable recovery is needed

Christine Aubry

There has been a lot of coverage in the media about the disproportionate and devastating impacts of this pandemic on marginalized populations. This had me thinking a lot about our neighbours and other Ottawa residents who rely on the social services provided in Sandy Hill.

While unfortunately I could not interview clients, I was able to speak to staff from three neighbourhood agencies. Jen Clark works at St. Joe’s Women’s Centre, the daytime shelter and Day Program for Ottawa’s homeless and low-income women and their children, on Laurier Avenue. Aileen Leo is on the senior management team at The Ottawa Mission, the emergency shelter and community and social service provider for the homeless and those at-risk of homelessness, on Daly Avenue. Rob Boyd directs the Oasis program based out of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre (off Rideau Street), offering a range of health and social services to individuals who use drugs, with a focus on harm reduction.

The pandemic’s emergency public health protocols resulted in the cancellation or reduction of essential health and wellness services; for those with poorer health profiles, within a social service system that was stretched beyond capacity pre-pandemic, this spelled disaster. Rob Boyd spoke of having to make life-or-death decisions from day one, with respect to reducing service levels in the consumption service during an opioid crisis.

“[The pandemic has] had terrible effect on participants with addictions and mental health issues — it is difficult for them to grasp and understand, especially without access to phones, cable and/or internet,” said Jen Clark, “Zoom is not an option for this population.”

For the homeless, while the City provided beds in arenas, to compensate for forced reductions in existing shelters, this was not a solution for everyone, especially women: “They feel safer sleeping outdoors,” said Clark. According to Aileen Leo the number of people sleeping outside has doubled from previous years. And while homelessness has not necessarily increased, “It suddenly became much more visible,” explains Boyd, as echoed by a client of St. Joe’s who told Clark: “I have noticed a lot of homeless women getting better access to housing during this pandemic because people finally have realized that people are at greater risk in the shelter system, but this has always been the case and still will be once COVID is over.”

Leo also emphasized the devastating impact on food security in this neighbourhood: “The ward and riding in which we sit has the highest rate of food insecurity in all provinces. It was bad before and now is awful.” The Mission is now providing 2,500 meals a day, up from 1,400 before COVID.

With closures, distancing rules and sanitation requirements, all services had to be re-arranged and re-thought. “What would have taken five to 10 years of change management happened in a few months,” said Boyd.

Being able to reach clients and ensure their basic needs were met required not only time and effort, but money. For those agencies that relied on large fundraising events, you could say it was a double whammy. While there was some additional public funding, corporate and individual donations filled some of the gaps.

Leo compared the support received from the community during this pandemic to what the Mission saw during the Great Depression: “People in Ottawa have a high degree of compassion for people who are homeless; they recognize the need and they step up. Our neighbours are very kind, compassionate people, we are very grateful.”

The Mission’s community meal program added meals and groceries to-go, as well as a food truck service, now providing 3,000 meals per week — it is so successful that they are raising funds to purchase a second truck. St. Joe’s staff dropped off food and essentials to seniors with health conditions, and a generous toy donation allowed moms to have activities for their children during the April school break. A donation of cellphones from Telus allowed Boyd and his colleagues to keep in touch with their clients, albeit often temporarily. For the Mission’s hospice clients, a donor purchased iPads so they could remain in contact with loved ones.

Some of the new services and changes will be maintained post-pandemic — from phone consultations to food delivery to Zoom memorials.

The team at St. Joe’s Women’s Centre stands outside the building located at 151 Laurier Avenue East, behind St Joseph’s Church, which is also home to St. Joe’s Supper Table. Pictured left to right: Jane, Marsha, Kathryn, Aaron, Jen.
Photo Christine Aubry

But for now, at St. Joe’s Women’s Centre, even post-lockdown the impact remains palpable. “We pride ourselves on having a home away from home, but this pandemic has stripped that away, [what was] a warm and inviting space is now all sanitized; [the pandemic] has taken away the centre clients once knew,” said Clark.

The constant changes and vigilance have been, understandably, exhausting for staff. “We used to refer [clients] to so many services that are no longer available and when we cannot refer outside, we need to take the work on ourselves. We’ve had to adapt and become “jack of all trades” — cleaners, counsellors, crisis managers, even Ottawa Public Health navigators,” said Clark.

Boyd spoke of the added stress on staff of witnessing so much trauma first-hand while having to manage their own anxiety: “What we were doing was already very difficult, but now it’s in really obscene conditions.”

With so much media focus on hospitals and seniors homes, you could say the front-line social worker is the forgotten hero working in the shadows. “They continue to come to work. They administer to the needs. They are remarkable people,” praises Leo.

The health literacy component of the job now includes vaccine promotion and coordination, which means convincing some, but sadly not in the way we might assume: “We have heard ‘I’m not worthy of the vaccine’,” Leo explained. “They know the risks, but it is not uncommon to hear them speak that way; we have to convince them that their life has value.”

While many of us are excitedly making post-pandemic plans, the long-term impacts of the pandemic are nowhere near over. Boyd says we can expect a surge in mental health and substance use needs across these communities, what he refers to as “the undertow of the pandemic and the response to the pandemic.” He warns that there will likely be another wave of evictions when CERB payments get clawed back.

Much like the problems that have come to light in long-term care homes, we cannot aim for a “return to normal.” As Boyd insisted: “It is really important that we don’t return to the way things were — it was not working for a lot of people. We need to be talking about equitable recovery.”