During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Manitobans were directed to stay at home and often to self-isolate. But what if they had nowhere to go?
Many community resources were inaccessible, so vulnerable people were left in a desperate situation. A new program called “Ask Auntie” was created as a response to the pandemic, and the immediate need to support and advocate for Brandon’s vulnerable, precariously housed and Indigenous populations.
“For stay-at-home orders ... many of our clients that we engage with were left out of the loop in that decision making, so, unfortunately, it was hard for them to … even gain shelter during the pandemic,” said Teague Luhr, Ask Auntie assistant.
The Ask Auntie program was developed at the Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation. In its current capacity, the program officially launched in May, Luhr said, “however we’ve been doing this work from the corner of our desk at the BNRC offices for years now.”
He added, “It’s nice to finally have funding secured and have some concrete structure so that we can do this full time.”
Funding is provided through the federal government’s Reaching Home program, through the Indigenous Homelessness funding stream. Ask Auntie developed partnerships within the community to provide direct support to vulnerable people, as well as provide alternative accommodation for isolation.
“At the peak of COVID-19 in its first wave, we rapidly re-housed about 50 clients or so just to get them off of the streets and into good, safe shelter.”
Temporary shelter was provided at the Redwood Inn, for individuals without shelter who needed to self-isolate.
“The reason why we provided those efforts was due to just a lack of systems to provide that basic type of protection for our clients,” Luhr said. “So we saw an obligation to do it, and we organized and mobilized those efforts on our own.”
Ask Auntie based their model off of an existing program in Toronto; a call centre for the vulnerable population. The Toronto program is a pathfinding resource, but without direct outreach or advocacy.
“We utilized that model, but we worked it into a framework where we could still provide that one-on-one engagement,” Luhr said.
As the program is Indigenous-focused and Indigenous-led, Luhr said they wanted to highlight the important role of an auntie. An auntie provides general support, unconditional care and wisdom.
“So we thought the role of an auntie was the perfect role to summarize what our efforts would be.”
Florence Halcrow, Ask Auntie co-ordinator, said there are a lot of vulnerable people in the community, and the pandemic only exacerbated their troubles.
“They were finding it hard to get resources especially with everything shut down,” she said. “People are having a lot of mental health issues throughout this, because there’s no one to talk to, and a lot of people, a lot of the homeless population, the vulnerable population, are having a really rough time.”
Another hurdle for many of their clients was a lack of basic necessities, including identification.
“What we noticed was for these clients, without ID, they were almost systemically barred from gaining access to government assistance or other programs they required,” Luhr said.
The program began efforts to help clients get these important documents, such as birth certificates, MPI IDs and health cards.
“They needed one ID to get the other, to start a bank account, or get a job, or apply for (Employment and Income Assistance),” Halcrow said. “People are so happy when they get their IDs, they feel like they’re someone.”
Ask Auntie acts as a pathfinding resource, after assessing needs. Clients are connected with community supports, thanks to many partnerships the program has with various offices in the community. The work is focused around trauma-informed, harm-reduction, and Indigenous perspectives. Individual support plans are provided, for a wide array of service needs.
“With lived-experienced workers who know many of the challenges that individuals and families face, especially when navigating systems traditionally colonial in nature,” states the program’s mandate. “We prioritize advocacy and community collaboration to best meet the needs of those we serve.”
One client by the name of Allen said the Ask Auntie program was a life-saver.
“If it weren’t for them I might have met my maker,” he said. “They made me survive.”
During the first wave of the pandemic, Allen was homeless and wound up in the hospital with pneumonia. Ask Auntie was able to help him find resources and housing, and is turning things around.
Ask Auntie recently secured partnerships with the United Way of Brandon and District, the Sexuality Education Resource Centre and the Manitoba Metis Federation to add an outreach position. Over the summer months, they have hosted different programming and events, with many taking place at Princess Park. Beading workshops, pop-up vaccine clinic and community barbecues to name a few. On Aug. 27 they are hosting Art Day in the Park from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Princess Park.
Looking to the future, Luhr said their hope is to build bridges between already established and existing agencies and the Indigenous community.
“We’ve seen a lot of success in our collaborative networking and engagement and we just want to see that collaboration carry on forward,” he said. “We’re always open to new partnerships and we’re really, really set on embodying the premises of truth and reconciliation.”
Agencies such as 7th Street Health Access Centre and Westman Mobilization Hub can refer clients to Ask Auntie. Organizers also encourage people to reach out directly, over the phone (204) 729-2490, Ask Auntie Brandon on Facebook or in person at the BNRC office, 440 Rosser Avenue.
» Twitter: @jillianaustin
Jillian Austin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun