The most vulnerable are at greater risk in a new lockdown, groups say

·6 min read
Kim Grant says the Gathering Place is trying to maintain options for people told to stay home despite housing insecurity. (Bruce Tilley/CBC - image credit)
Kim Grant says the Gathering Place is trying to maintain options for people told to stay home despite housing insecurity. (Bruce Tilley/CBC - image credit)
Kim Grant says the Gathering Place is trying to maintain options for people told to stay home despite housing insecurity.
Kim Grant says the Gathering Place is trying to maintain options for people told to stay home despite housing insecurity.

Kim Grant says the Gathering Place is trying to maintain options for people told to stay home despite housing insecurity.

How do you shelter in place when you do not have a place to live? When public health encourages people to stay at home during Alert Level 5, how does that apply to the homeless?

For the clients and staff of outreach centres like Gathering Place and the Salvation Army's Centre of Hope, a return to lockdown is a familiar challenge.

Kim Grant, the acting executive director at the Gathering Place in downtown St. John's, said that while the return to Alert Level 5 has been difficult, the non-profit has managed to keep essential services running through take-away meals.

"We provide a breakfast every morning that people can take with them, and then they can come back midday and receive two meals for the rest of the day."

In addition to meals, Grant said that their new shelter, which opened in October, remains operational for those who need it.

"With the shelter we continue to provide services for people who have nowhere to go, and it's staffed 24/7," said Grant. "We do provide support to individuals who might need that, we work with individuals to look at housing options, and help them move into housing as quickly as possible."

Pandemic has added to existing pressures

Running an outreach centre is no easy task, even without the added pressures of a global pandemic and province-wide lockdown. For many of its clientele, the Gathering Place doesn't just offer vital services, but also a sense of a community and a space to socialize.

"They come to us for that social connection, for the support in getting housing or some of their basic needs met, as well as accessing some health services and other supports," Grant said. "So it's been a very difficult decision to have to close the doors for them."

Clients of the Gathering Place socially distance while waiting for services like takeaway meals.
Clients of the Gathering Place socially distance while waiting for services like takeaway meals.

Clients of the Gathering Place socially distance while waiting for services like takeaway meals.

The new precautions which a return to level 5 has brought have been an adjustment, though one that Grant said they have been managing well, with staff and clients doing their best to follow public health guidelines.

"The mask-wearing, keeping your distance, the frequent hand-washing, we're doing routine screening for symptoms, and we've increased our cleaning throughout the building," said Grant. "We have regular support and consultation with our partners at Eastern Health, so that has helped in terms of us continuing to manage in this way."

Though the return to lockdown presents a number of challenges and uncertainty, both staff and clientele of the Gathering Place have been able to make a smooth transition, Grant said, thanks in part to lessons learned the first time around.

"We know so much more, as well as we have the PPE that we need to provide the services. And I think as well our guests have been here before, so they adapted fairly well to this new way of operation, and that has been a very humbling experience for us."

Community support critical

Though staff and clientele have been adjusting well, it remains a precarious position for many who avail of the outreach centre's services. The pandemic and lockdown, as well as the isolation which they solicit, can be profound stressors on individuals with underlying mental health or addiction concerns.

"Many of the individuals who come to the Gathering Place have many challenges, whether it's poverty, homelessness, isolation, or they're dealing with mental health and addictions concerns," said Grant. "Certainly those are all conditions that place them at higher risk when you're dealing with a pandemic."

Grant said they are worried about the impact the pandemic is having on clients' mental health.

"And so we worry about … any potential increases in substance use, and whether or not they're able to get their mental health and physical health-care needs met."

For Grant and the other staff at the Gathering Place, she said that they're thankful for the continued support of the community which allows them to provide these services, and hopes that kindness will continue as lockdown does.

"We want people to know that we've been very appreciative of the generosity that the Gathering Place has received from the public," said Grant. "And that support goes a long way, enabling us to provide these critical services, especially during these challenging times."

Food bank use doubled since last year

Salvation Army Maj. Rene Loveless knows the challenges of pivoting amidst an uncertain lockdown. Loveless is the secretary of relations and development in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the wake of the second lockdown, Loveless said that some programs at the Ches Penney Centre of Hope in St. John's will have to adapt.

Salvation Army Maj. Rene Loveless is the secretary of public relations and development in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Salvation Army Maj. Rene Loveless is the secretary of public relations and development in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Salvation Army Maj. Rene Loveless is the secretary of public relations and development in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We recognize these days that our programs and services are needed more than ever, and there's no reduced capacity at this moment when it comes to our feeding programs," said Loveless. "When it comes to our community meals, when it comes to our food bank, we just have to find a way to do that differently."

But most importantly, said Loveless, is the ability to get food to the people who need it. When it comes to their community meal program the centre has transitioned to takeout, with their food bank tweaked as well to allow safe usage.

"[Food bank operations] are happening on Tuesday afternoons and Thursday afternoons, and all day Wednesday, people can arrive and they'll get the help that they need," he said, "We just have to bring them through the building safely, having the right number of people in the building at any one time, so that every way we are able to observe the health protocols."

Loveless said that while no one should be impacted by the changes to the food bank, it may take a little longer than usual. Counselling services will have to change as well, with a switch to phone or scheduled Zoom call.

While staff had been working to fill the housing units of the recently completed centre, it is not currently in use. The demand for other services, however, has seen a notable increase.

When it comes to community meals, Loveless said the centre serves more than 200 people each meal.

"That's 600 to 700 people at any given week," said Loveless. "When it comes to our food bank, we're serving 125 plus families every week."

According to Loveless, those numbers have nearly doubled from this time last year.

"The need is ever increasing in the community: many people are coming to us for help for the very first time as their lives are being impacted in many different ways by COVID-19," Loveless said. "That's why we're here though: struggling people need to know that they are not alone."

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