COVID-19 constraints at downtown church in Kelowna bring 'loss of a sense of community' for most vulnerable

·3 min read

For Cheryl Perry, the empty gym at the First United Church in Kelowna tells a lot about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the community's most vulnerable people.

Before the health crisis, the cavernous space was filled twice a week with conversation and laughter, Perry, the minister for outreach and families for the church, told CBC Radio West host Sarah Penton in an interview.

Now the space is empty and quiet. The doors are locked. There are no worship services or meetings in the building.

"People come to an entrance and we still distribute groceries and lunches to people," Perry said. "But we can't have people come in and sit down and have coffee and hot food like they were before."

"The loss of the sense of community around the table, a chance for people to just visit with their neighbour and get to know other people, is gone at this time."

Before the pandemic, when people could come into the building for coffee hour and sit around a table, Perry said she could meet with people and talk with them about their needs.

Cheryl Perry
Cheryl Perry

If they were facing eviction or needed a rent supplement or help with dentures or prescriptions, she could often find money for such "one-off situations" from the church discretionary fund or connect them with another agency that could help.

"That kind of work is not what I can do right now. I can't sit down with people and talk to them."

"I meet people at the door now as they come for groceries. And we have that sort of exchange about how things are going in their lives, but fewer of those opportunities to help people with bigger issues."

Personally, Perry finds one of the hardest aspects of the pandemic to be the loss of human connection. She laments the inability to really visit with the regulars who she still sees and she worries about the ones who have stopped coming by.

Missing faces a worry

"There's lots I can think of who I haven't seen now in six months," she said. "I don't know how they're doing. I don't know where they are. I don't know if they're still housed where they were before and whether they're lonely."

"And, you know the toll on mental health and particularly people with addictions in this time," she said. "I imagine that some of them may have even passed away because we've had so many opioid overdoses as people are shut in alone and using alone."

Perry and colleagues at the First United Church are doing what they can to give comfort and connection as winter closes in. There will be a new tent canopy to keep people dry while they wait outside to pick up groceries and preliminary discussions have begun about allowing distanced indoor shelter in the gym during sub-zero weather.

"But at this point, we're still doing things just outside," she said.

With files from CBC Radio West