— Feature —

On the Front Lines

Edmonton charities grapple with the impact of COVID-19 on their organizations and clients

The shutdown of office towers, pubs and restaurants in the core during the COVID-19 pandemic created an eerie feeling for the residents of Downtown and Oliver. The streets resembled a post-rapture dystopia during work hours. Small groups of people lounged in parks or on cement benches by Jasper. Otherwise, things were silent.

The first presumptive positive COVID-19 case in Alberta was reported by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer for the province, on March 5. In the early days of lockdown, fears ran high. While many people were staying home and stocking up on cleaning supplies, toilet paper, flour, and yeast, service providers in the core were working to ensure they could continue to offer a place to go for those who didn’t have the resources to stockpile or a home to go to.

During the initial lockdown, conversion of the Edmonton Expo Centre and the Kinsmen Sports Centre into homeless shelters allowed vulnerable people to safely get a meal, take a shower, or access medical or housing support while physically distancing. The city reported that an average of 675 people visited the Expo Centre on a daily basis, and as of July there has only been one case of COVID-19 in the homeless population. But in July, both temporary shelters closed and organizations and those that depend on them are having to adapt once again.

That includes Boyle Street Community Services, one of Edmonton’s largest charities supporting people experiencing homelessness and poverty, which operates numerous sites and services including the Boyle Street Community Centre.

“I think if you had told me that we got to July and we have only one case [in the homeless population] I would have been surprised. But then you think about the risk factors, like travel, and the fact that the contact between snowbirds and our clients is pretty minimal,” says Elliott Tanti, who works in communications at Boyle Street.

Months after lockdown, in July, there is a long line up along the side of the bright blue and white building that is the Boyle Street Community Centre. People are waiting to cash their cheques. This inner-city bank is a unique service for people who often lack access to financial services.

There’s a blue pup tent and a large blue patio umbrella and people are set up to wait. They sit close together and there isn’t much social distancing. In that way it is no different than when you are walking down Jasper Avenue and watching people sitting on patios.

“So the line up is here and then on cheque-day, which is now the first of every month, the city shuts down the street and we put guard rails down,” explains Tanti.

Services have changed since COVID-19, he says. “This used to be a free flow, kind of in-and-out [service]. Now we have all our doors locked and security is in charge of control. You get some questions when you come in—how are you feeling, do you have any symptoms, that kind of thing.” The maximum occupation for the building has been reduced to 50 people. They still offer lunch but encourage people to take it with them outside so that others can enter the building.

“Our goal is to provide as many services as we can, but in the safest way for our community and our staff,” says Tanti. “When this first started, we as a leadership group tried to remind our staff that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Tanti stops to joke around with a man who has long dark hair by the hand-washing station. “I’m going to whoop you,” the man, named Robert, says jokingly.

“Not today—we have to enforce social distancing so we can’t be whooping each other,” replies Tanti.

Inside, the bank is a small space with pale yellow walls. There are three clients inside, two seated in front of glass screens talking to the bank tellers. The glass partitions are the sort that are now standard on any counter where the public comes to interact. “And you can see because of the way our buildings are set up it’s a pretty tight space. This has been the biggest impact on the bank. It is still pretty busy though. People still need to access their money,” says Tanti.

It has been a time of enormous upheaval, and not just because of the pandemic. While most people were sheltered at home, the murder of George Floyd in the U.S. led thousands of people to come out to the Alberta Legislature on June 5 in support of Black Lives Matter. It also reinvigorated a conversation about defunding the police, or appropriately funding social services where the responsibility of these gaps have fallen to police officers.

The calls to better fund social services instead of relying on police services have been underway in Edmonton since 2015 with the 24/7 crisis diversion program, an integrated community response team that responds to people in distress through 211.

REACH Edmonton, an organization whose core funding is provided by the City of Edmonton, coordinates the service on behalf of various social services organizations, including Boyle Street, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), and Hope Mission. The goal is to divert calls from police, particularly calls that are better handled through social services.

“There was a real understanding that people in non-emergency crises don’t need to engage with emergency services. So how can we support people during those times and leave the space for the police to do what they need to do?” says Madeleine Smith, Co-Director, Community Initiatives at REACH.

As a part of the Edmonton Council for Safe Communities, the only council of its kind in Canada, REACH also attempts to look at the root causes of why people feel unsafe in the community and to consider the underlying factors of crime. “At very early times in their lives when the roots of crime and disorder start long before there’s any engagement with the police,” says Smith.

During the initial outbreak of COVID-19, the partners did a mixture of triaging services through 211 and engaging with people in the streets to build relationships, provide food and clothing, or rides to the Edmonton EXPO Centre that was converted to a day-use shelter and used for COVID testing.

The first 211 call about COVID-19 was on January 31, and since then, 20 to 30 percent of calls to 211 have been about COVID-19.

The first call into the CMHA distress line was on February 2. The number one reason for calls to the distress line have been for mental health, but there is a rising concern at both Boyle Street and CMHA about an uptick in domestic violence.

Before the pandemic, many calls into the hotline about domestic violence would typically come in during the workday or late at night when the abuser was sleeping, which may not be an option with many working from home. Tanti says there is a similar issue in identifying child abuse as reports would often have come through teachers at school.

“That’s definitely something we have been watching for really closely,” says Emma Potter, Director, Crisis and Navigation Support Services at CMHA. “And we have only in [July] started to see our numbers go up around issues related to domestic violence.”

Katherine O’Neill, chief executive officer for YWCA Edmonton, says that even identifying the issue of domestic violence in a pandemic has been tricky. “Normally, a crisis comes and goes quite quickly, but we are going to be in a crisis situation for a year or longer. This is extraordinary for a non-profit to keep on top of,” she says. “Since this crisis has happened we have been absolutely overwhelmed with requests for support.”

The YWCA offers counselling, and specializes in domestic violence cases, on a sliding scale depending on income and what a person is able to pay. The current estimated waitlist would be a year long.

O’Neill says the increase in domestic violence “comes down to the fact that there is a lot of stress in the home economically and having the children in the home more […] When you put all that together in an unhealthy relationship, it can lead to violence.”

She adds that not all violence is physical either—there can be financial abuse and people withholding funds.

“We really need to make sure that as a community we recognize that this can happen in any household and abuse can happen in many forms,” she says.

Despite the challenges, a move to online counselling has given some opportunities for the YWCA to expand their reach. They have been able to assist with counselling services as far as Iqaluit.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

There are still many unknowns for social services in the core during COVID-19. Information from health officials and requirements, such as mandatory masking, are changing swiftly.

Both Tanti and Smith have talked about the struggle to keep up with information, and the flexibility to address the gaps that they see. “People are really struggling to deal with a changing environment, changing practices, [and] changing expectations,” says Tanti.

As this article goes to press, the Edmonton municipal government is passing a requirement for mandatory masking on transit and in all indoor public spaces.

The uncertainty extends to funding availability and financial implications as well. In May, the Alberta government announced $30 million in emergency funding to charities and non-profits to support them during the pandemic, but organizations like Boyle Street are also donor-funded. “I have been taken aback at how generous Edmontonians have been. We have seen smaller donor donations, but a lot more of them,” says Tanti.

Still, it is hard to predict the long-term financial implications of COVID-19. A ballooned city and provincial budget and increased deficits could have an impact on the delivery of future services. We may not see the systemic impact of COVID-19 for some time. There are financial hardships for many families through job loss or access to childcare, and family poverty could be on the rise as a result.

“As of yet I don’t think we have a clear picture of what [funding going forward] looks like and I don’t think those government bodies have had those conversations yet either. There is a fear in lots of people’s minds in our sector that the financial struggle that COVID has landed the country and province in will serve as a basis for a decrease of programs, which is the exact opposite of what we need right now,” says Tanti.

There is also concern about the closing of the emergency shelters at the Edmonton Expo Centre and Kinsmen Sports Centre. A joint letter dated August 1 and signed by nine local groups, including the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights and EndPovertyEdmonton, argues that the closure will lead to issues in vulnerable communities.

“While we recognize the temporary EXPO Centre was established to respond to COVID-19 needs, its closure on Friday, July 31 is going to have severe impacts on the city,” the letter said.

The letter called for immediate action, including a joint-proposal from the Government of Alberta and the city for a new day-use shelter and for more funding to groups that do street outreach, and for “immediate resource mobilization” to groups that are having to fill the gaps of government programs.

While over the summer there has been a sense that people are eager to return to normal, the climbing number of positive COVID-19 cases reminds us that the virus is still around, and our current environment may be with us for some time. The fears of the early days have somewhat ebbed, and the hoarding of toilet paper has stopped, but the social upheaval continues.

SUPPORT PHONE NUMBERS

  • Community and Social Services Helpline: 211
  • Edmonton Police Complaint Line: 780-423-4567
  • Alberta 24-Hour Mental Health Line: 1-877-303-2642
  • CMHA Edmonton 24-Hour Distress Line: 780-482-4357
  • Edmonton Sexual Assault Centre 24-Hour Crisis Line: 780-423-4121
  • Alberta ONE LINE for Sexual Violence: 1-866-403-8000
  • Access 24/7 Addiction & Mental Health Services: 780-424-2424
  • Kids Help Line: 1-800-668-6868
  • Child Abuse Hot Line: 1-800-387-5437
  • Teens Helping Teens: 780-428-8336
  • National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-833-900-1010

EMERGENCY SHELTERS

  • Lurana Shelter | Crisis Phone: 780-424-5875
  • SAGE Seniors’ Safe House | Crisis Phone: 780-702-1520
  • WIN House | Crisis Phone: 780-479-0058