Desperate Times, Heroic Measures

Community in the Time of COVID-19

Circle back to Winnipeg a few months ago. Our community organizations were hard at work every day, delivering essential services and programs to thousands of Winnipeggers. There was never a slow day. The demand for services at these agencies was always high; the need was still there.

When COVID-19 hit our city, community-serving agencies were thrust into emergency mode. Despite all the hard work of staff and volunteers, no matter how many hours they devoted to helping Winnipeggers, this new reality of life in a pandemic was overwhelming.

Endeavour Wealth Management dropping off supplies for IRCOM.

Volunteers from Endeavour Wealth Management drop off donated supplies at agency partner IRCOM.

Overnight, they had to find new ways to help Winnipeggers fast. They had little time to make the necessary arrangements, and whatever their plans were for early 2020, they were put on hold. They were forced to change how they operated as expeditiously and efficiently as possible, to respond to the emergent and increased needs of a community in crisis. Many staff and volunteers worked around the clock, not knowing if or when the end was in sight.

Through the generosity of our donors, United Way Winnipeg was able to expedite funding to many of these front-line agencies, so they could deliver immediate assistance to the areas where help was needed most.

Here are a few updates on how some of these hard-working local agencies chose to work differently in their response to COVID-19, and some of the inventive and inspiring ways they are changing lives for thousands of vulnerable Winnipeggers.

A & O Support Services for Older Adults

A & O Support Services for Older Adults is a United Way Winnipeg agency partner.

To help older adults feel connected during the pandemic, A&O: Support Services for Older Adults responded with innovative and supportive solutions.

“We’re working differently for sure,” said Amanda Macrae, Chief Executive Officer of A&O: Support Services for Older Adults. “For instance, we’re conducting support groups with clients through Zoom. This has really helped many people manage their anxiety and know that they’re not alone.”

One of the agency’s innovative programs is the Senior Centre Without Walls program, which is the first of its kind in Canada. This is a free service offering a way to connect socially and engage in programs over the phone.

As one participant shared, “Thank you for your time and for creating this wonderful service! It’s a beautiful gift to learn and engage when otherwise housebound and isolated.”

Macrae added that, with an ageing population, this service is accessed more than ever before. And, as our population continues to age, Macrae said innovative solutions and partnerships, which have been demonstrated through the launch of the 311 Call Centre line must continue. We need to be able to do more now, to support older adults in ageing well today, and in the future.

“We also added a program called the Daily Hello, where people can call in daily and staff are on the line to see how they’re managing right now; how they’re coping,” said Macrae. “Are they able to get groceries? Are they filling their prescriptions? It’s a way we ensure that everybody’s hanging in okay.”

A&O: Support Services for Older Adults also partnered with 311, the Government of Canada, Winnipeg Harvest, and other local organizations. Older adults who feel isolated and in need of assistance can call 311 to connect with helpful resources, including assistance with grocery delivery, prescriptions, or specialized services.

Macrae recalled a story of one woman who called 311. She used a wheelchair and was unable to get groceries on her own. The caller had many concerns: she didn’t have internet access and couldn’t pay for her groceries online; she thought she would be out of medication soon and didn’t know how to get her prescriptions delivered; she also has a sister who could not afford to pay for her groceries and required emergency food.

“Calling 311 helped her navigate the system and understand what resources are available to them,” said Macrae. “It streamlines the process, and takes a weight off their shoulders, helping them manage and cope in this difficult time.”

Macrae also said one of the things they’re finding is that people might be calling about food security, though sometimes it opens up many other issues, such as loneliness, domestic abuse, hoarding behaviour, and other issues affecting older adults.

“It may not just be a single issue, but a whole basket of issues,” said Macrae. “And we need to ask the right questions to be able to help people get the support they need to deal with these issues.”

Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre

Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre is a United Way Winnipeg agency partner.

In the thick of the pandemic, Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre had to suspend its operations at all of their three community care sites.

“The site at 363 McGregor is considered the living room of the North End,” said Diane Redsky, Executive Director at Ma Mawi. “It was a place for everyone, and when we had to shut our doors, it was traumatic for everybody.”

Redsky said that the people who visited their community care sites relied on them for their everyday survival.

“It just pushes poverty into more poverty,” said Redsky. “To have these resources shut down is scary for many families. Their day-to-day survival was completely contingent on being able to walk down the street for a hot bowl of soup, enjoy someone’s company and maybe learn something while you’re there and do some laundry.”

She said many people are no longer connected to their community in the same way.

“Technology is how many of us stay connected. But what if you don’t have a phone? Or data to access virtual mental health supports. We’ve already seen a spike in violence. And things will only get worse as people become more desperate.”

Before COVID-19, on any given day, six days a week, Redsky said Ma Mawi was feeding about 100 people per site, per day. Without money, people have to make tough decisions. Do they pay rent or buy food? And for seniors, if it’s between buying food or medication, Redsky said food is often something that will be sacrificed first.

“When the site was shut down, we knew we needed to kick into action and have something available for people who rely on us for their meals every day,” said Redsky. “And that was the birth of the emergency kit, something we could do quickly that was within our capacity.”

Each emergency food kit consisted of a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a juice box, and a granola bar. Since mid-March, volunteers and staff have delivered over 20,000 emergency food kits in the community, with some days averaging 1,000 kits.

“One of the seniors said that she couldn’t remember the last time she had roast beef,” Redsky said. “She opened a bag and saw it was a roast beef sandwich. She said how emotional it was for her and how it brought back all these really good memories.”

Redsky sees what is happening in the community as a unique opportunity for people to work together as part of a human family.

“Everybody needs to help each other now,” she said. “It’s more important than ever that all hands are on deck, so no one is left behind; we need to ensure that vulnerable people aren’t becoming more vulnerable.”

Redsky also noted that we need to be mindful of the example we’re setting for our young people. She said they’re watching how adults are helping other people.

“Are we running from an emergency or creating a community where everybody is helping out? What kind of community do we want to be?”

Main Street Project

Main Street Project is a United Way Winnipeg agency partner.

In the face of a pandemic, how can Winnipeggers experiencing homelessness wash their hands and effectively practice self-isolation and social distancing when they’re staying at a shelter designed to pack in as many people as possible?

“And where can people living on the street go when public spaces like libraries, rec centres and walkways are closed to protect the public? asked Rick Lees, Executive Director of Main Street Project.

“The decision to close public spaces had the unintended effect of squeezing a marginalized population, so now they had nowhere to go,” said Lees.

Lees said closures put additional strain on Main Street Project’s community drop-in services, and the agency needed to make some major decisions.

“You can do one of two things,” said Lees. “You can either reduce the number of people you can accommodate, or you can expand.”

Main Street Project chose to expand, and as of May 2, the agency moved its emergency and drop-in shelter services to a new site at 190 Disraeli Freeway.

“We had to divide our shelter into three sites, and staffing was a challenge to manage the sites and then consolidate down to the one.”

Lees said the new space is 76,000 square feet with 120 beds, providing respite for people on the street and enabling them to practice proper physical distancing.

The site also offers expanded drop-in hours, food service, access to hygiene products, and safe sleeping spaces during the day and overnight. There are also bathrooms and showers available on both floors of the facility. The furniture for many of the isolation rooms at both Main Street Project’s new location and Sargent location were generously donated by the DeFehr Foundation (Palliser), Dufresne Furniture and Appliances, and IKEA.

Lees said one of the main issues they found with individuals experiencing homelessness was that they were being discharged from their isolation units too soon (after four days). Lees said it takes time to wait for results, and an early discharge means you’re discharging these individuals back into the shelter system.

“So we’ve amended our discharge planning, and if someone is negative but symptomatic, we’ll keep them 14 days as a precaution.”

Lees said an unintended and positive result of the self-isolation units is that they’re better for managing individuals using meth.

For example, there were a few meth users who came to Main Street Project and self-isolated for four days. Their meth use was controlled during this time.

“Once they got their test results back, they asked if they could participate in the agency’s detox program,” said Lees. “And these were clients we would not necessarily reach before.”

Lees said it would be great if some of the infrastructures for the funding, which were put in place to respond to the crisis stage of the pandemic, could remain.

“Everyone’s focused on COVID, and so are we. But we have a shot at dealing with some of the drug issues and homeless issues in the city. Maybe we should keep it going.”

Mount Carmel Clinic

Mount Carmel Clinic is a United Way Winnipeg agency partner.

To serve the needs of their community members in the changing times of COVID-19, Mount Carmel Clinic had to make many adjustments in how they work.

“We’ve been really trying to shift what we do, and the need has increased in many ways,” said Rebecca Blaikie, Director of Community Services for Mount Carmel Clinic. “And we’re not offering all the same things anymore.”

To accommodate many of the group activities that are no longer available, many of the programs, like Sage House, which normally offers drop-in and outreach, moved entirely to outreach.

Blaikie said they quadrupled their food provision and distribution, and since a lot of the food banks that their clients use have closed, the agency has become their food bank.

Teams are now out on the street doing deliveries, with some staff working at Sage House.

“We changed our hours to 12-8, Monday to Friday, so we’re open later every night for women to come to the door for food, and harm reduction and hygiene supplies.”

Blaikie said self-isolating is almost impossible for people living in poverty.

“When you live in a rooming house, even if you’re staying home, you’re not really getting to isolate. Even if you want to, you’re basically at the whim of how everybody else in that space is behaving,” she said.

And stocking up on anything is also not an option, she said. When many Winnipeggers were out buying toilet paper, Blaikie noted many of their clients don’t have the money to buy it in advance.

“They are folks who usually buy roll to roll, so we’d stick some in with the food kits we’d deliver,” she said.

Blaikie said they’re also trying to create ways for people in the community to connect as well.

“We set up a new intake line for counselling. Our counsellors can chat with folks and help them navigate the different systems.”

Blaikie said another challenge their clients were experiencing was accessing services and systems like EIA, which require a phone.

“With some of the funding we received, we purchased 20 flip phones that we put 100 minutes on for some of our most vulnerable clients who didn’t have their own phone.”

Clients could now access financial, social, and mental health supports, plus Blaikie said it also enabled their staff to be able to check in with folks more efficiently and get them the supplies they need.

One of the main things on Mount Carmel’s wish list is to be able to reopen their showers for clients.

“We know there are a lot of folks who may not have access to a clean shower right now,” she said. “But in order for us to open up our shower, we’d need at least three or four staff to keep it safe and get it cleaned after every use, and we just don’t have the capacity for that right now.”

North Point Douglas Women’s Centre

North Point Douglas Women's Centre is a United Way Winnipeg agency partner.

When COVID-19 spread throughout the community, staff North Point Douglas had to quickly put safety protocols in place to keep their clients and staff safe. It was a lot of change that had to happen fast.

The small but mighty family resource centre is a welcome and safe hub where clients could drop in daily from nine to five to use the computers and access the internet, do laundry, and use the bathroom, and connect with other women in the neighbourhood. And every evening but Saturday, the centre offered useful programs and services for women.

“We pretty much had to shut it all down,” said Tara Zajac, Executive Director. “But we realized what we could still do for people – the need we were seeing – was food. So, we decided we would supply food, feminine hygiene, hygiene, and baby products.”

The agency puts together 100 hampers for distribution every Tuesday on a first-come, first-served basis. “The hampers are often gone in under 45 minutes,” she said. “There is so much need right now, and we’re seeing that need increase every week. We also put a bar of soap in each hamper, and that’s a big deal for many people. It’s little things that can make a big difference.”

Zajac said everyone who receives a hamper is always so grateful. She said there are people who have received a hamper and will come back to the family resource centre to return an item or items that they don’t need or plan to use.

“I think that’s huge to see people who are struggling already saying to give this to somebody else. Even in times of need, we’re seeing people come back to the community,” Zajac said. “Last week, with the food people gave back, we were able to make two more hampers to hand out to two more people.”

“It’s just one of the reasons I fell in love with this area,” she said.

The social aspect at the centre was another big change that resulted from COVID-19.

“For a lot of people visiting the centre, maybe they don’t have family in the city or close by, and they can’t connect like many people are on the phone or on Zoom,” said Zajac. “Our centre is like a second home for their family.”

These agencies are part of an essential network of almost 100 local agency partners, and the critical work they do in our community would not be possible without the generous support of United Way Winnipeg donors.

Thank you to all the agency staff and volunteers working on the front lines, and to all our generous donors who made it possible for us to fund these invaluable community organizations.

Today, the work of these agencies is more important than ever. By working in a united way, Winnipeggers can help these agencies and our entire community get back on track. Together, we can make Winnipeg the best place it can be for everyone.

Let’s rally to recover.