The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting public health protocols have been challenging for everyone, but this time has been especially difficult for those already on the margins. To continue to support people in poverty in Waterloo Region, MCC’s Walking With People in Poverty program staff and participants have had to adjust to a new way of connecting with each other, which has brought new challenges and surprising silver linings, too.
Circle of Friends supports folks who are transitioning out of homelessness by creating a “circle of friends” who are there to provide practical, social, and emotional support for the program participants. Members of the circle drive participants to appointments, meet them for coffee, or go for a walk with them. Personal and physical interactions are vital to this program, so the physical distancing has been an enormous challenge—both emotionally and practically.
Circle of Friends program manager Debora Moslehi says that, like much of the world, Circle of Friends has had to start relying on virtual video and phone calls to stay connected to folks. However, video calls are often fraught with technical difficulties, leaving some participants frustrated and even more depleted than before. “I think constant Zoom calls can be exhausting even when things run perfectly and you are a tech savvy person,” reflects Debora. “But a lot of our participants do not have reliable internet or technical know-how, so when the world is ‘going virtual,’ it’s not an ideal option for us.”
“Things have been kind of surreal,” says Samantha,* who, in addition to the challenges of isolation from physical distancing, has had to contend with trauma from a car accident she was in just before the pandemic protocols came into effect. “Because of my brain injury, I find it hard to focus, especially when I’m alone in my room and trying to organize my day or on a screen too much.” Samantha, who lives in supportive housing, calls her Circle her greatest support. Despite her challenges, she has diligently attended most of the Circle of Friends virtual events. “It’s not ideal, but I still do appreciate it! I really miss connecting with my Circle; there’s just something special about being together in person.”
Debora and other Circle of Friends staff are innovating on a weekly basis, finding engaging ways for members to have meaningful interactions. They are also helping with practical needs by giving food cards for grocery stores and laptops for those like Samantha who previously had no way of connecting online. Debora works at creating a safe space for both participants and staff to be honest about where they are at. “Sometimes a bad day is a bad day—and that’s okay,” says Debora. “For our program, success looks different these days. But we’re still trying and are reminding everyone that we are not going anywhere—we will get through this.”
Cindy MacRae is the Participant Advisory Group (PAG) coordinator for MCC. The PAG is a group of folks with lived experience with homelessness who educate regional and municipal policymakers on issues related to homelessness and advocate for those experiencing poverty. “Nothing about us without us,” is their motto.
Cindy reached out to the PAG community with a survey to gauge how folks were dealing with the pandemic. As expected, social distancing was taking a toll on participants with loneliness setting in while not being able to spend time with friends, family, and community. “[It’s] taking a bigger toll than expected with mental health issues and living alone,” wrote one. Another voiced how “It’s difficult not to shake hands or hug people you care about.”
Another more fundamental challenge is that many have no home to “stay home” at. Within the shelters, crisis respites, and halfway houses, the residents and staff have difficulty practicing social distancing to keep themselves and others safe as the facilities are overcrowded. This forces more people out to the streets.
One member pointed out two key factors that have contributed to these problems: lack of affordable housing and lack of livable income. “All the food prices have gone up as well as all other costs...it is very difficult to manage on a pension,” relates one participant. Another pointed out that even the cost of the cheapest bachelor apartment, which is around $1,000 per month, is out of reach for those on a fixed income.
Despite these challenges, Cindy has seen how the PAG community has shown resilience and courage. “Stay true to [yourself] and stand tall for what you believe in…,” wrote one participant. “I believe each of us is of value and has something positive to add to [our] experiences during this pandemic.”
Members of PAG, front row (L-R): Brie, Susie, Cindy MacRae (MCC), Char; back row (L-R) Reid Kennel (MCC), Carol, Glenna, and Wayne. MCC photo/Shoua Vang
For Jenn Klassen and her staff who cook delicious soup for The Raw Carrot social enterprise, the pandemic has brought both storm clouds and a silver lining. Their already high hygiene standards have been increased further with each staff being screened before being let into the building, masking up while cooking, and chopping vegetables at separate tables in the basement of Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church where they operate. “We have always sanitized the living daylights out of everything,” says Jenn with a laugh, “and we continue to do so!”
Their greatest challenge, however, has not been making the soup; it’s been selling it. The major events that have been the biggest sellers—markets, vendor shows, Christmas shows—have all been cancelled due to the pandemic. Because of the lower sales, there have been reduced shifts for the workers. “These guys haven’t complained about the smaller paycheques they’ve been getting,” says Jenn. “[But] they miss being together and having snacks at break time and laughing and sharing and belonging. There is definitely a sense of stress about the possibility of illness, but they are careful. They are concerned for the world and for each other.”
Jenn reflects that there has been one unanticipated bright spot. “I think the most stunning thing I have heard these past few months from the kitchen team is that they are thrilled to be “essential workers.” In their lives, some have been mocked because of their “disAbilities,” or made to feel they aren’t good enough, smart enough, or have nothing to offer.”
But when essential workers were called back to work, “they stood tall and came in and trusted us to have the proper precautions in place to keep everyone safe,” recalls Jenn. “They were told that they are essential. Can you imagine what that message can do for someone? So yeah, we are still making healthy, tasty soup, but that’s just the by-product of what’s going on at the Kitchener Raw Carrot!”
If you want to support the Kitchener Raw Carrot team, there is an online store to order your delicious soups on these cold days. Soup orders are delivered every Tuesday. Jenn is currently looking for a volunteer driver to help with deliveries. If interested, please contact Jenn at firstname.lastname@example.org.