Adapting our work during Covid-19

On May 6th, 7th, and 8th 2020, housing professionals from across Toronto gathered in a series of Community Conversations to collaboratively consider:  

How has COVID-19 shifted the ways in which we deliver housing help services? What strategies for adapting service delivery are housing professionals across the sector developing for doing this work? 

The conversations resulted in a number of identified challenges and strategies that fall within the following themes:  

  • Client Support 
  • Programming and Service Delivery 
  • Organizing Staffing / work structure 
  • Financial Concerns and Considerations 
  • Client Concerns  
  • Self and Collective Care  

The conversations also resulted in a number of tools that can support the work across the housing sector during Covid-19. These tools include:  

  • The Mighty Network – a social media-based community space for organizations  
  • Trello – a tool for tracking work  
  • Asana – a tool for tracking project-based work  
  • Microsoft Teams – tool for collaborative working that is integrated with Outlook  
  • Slack – digital communication platform for remote teams   
  • Zoom – video conferencing program  
  • GoToMeeting – alternate video conferencing platform  

Shared Challenges and Strategies 

Challenges  Strategies 
Unable to hold programs, workshops, etc. Using Social Media platforms to provide programs: Facebook Live allows live Q&A; Instagram Live; YouTube Livestream. 
Accessing food services that are provided by the agency – drop-in meals, etc.  Providing meals outside the door on a pick-up basis with marked social distancing lineups outside. 
Delivery of food/goods to people’s homes cannot happen anymore.  Shift to a pick-up model or meet client in a common area (i.e. a foyer of a building, outside their home) for pickup of groceries & other essentials.  
New move-ins that enter a shared living space from high risk situations are putting other occupants at risk (rooming houses, shelters, etc.).  New move-ins required to isolate in unit for fourteen days; provide services like grocery delivery and other essential goods with drop-off outside the door to make isolation accessible. 
Drop-ins are closed, and so organizations have become less accessible to potential clients.  Posting digital ways to access intake/services on doors of centers so visitors know where to go to seek support. 
Locations that remain open are highly susceptible to Covid-19 outbreaks.  Nurses on-site taking temperatures, limiting access to anyone showing symptoms. Increase disinfecting all surfaces, redeploy staff to prioritize.
Outreach work is challenging and unsafe. Poster campaign to list services and contact information, pasted in high traffic areas; post contact information on all service site doors. Set up at hotline with voicemail for inquiries, and dedicate/redeploy staff to monitoring and returning calls there.
Safety concerns around going to viewings and ethical concerns around sending clients to viewings, especially if high risk.  Facilitate digital/virtual tours of units first; schedule in-person only when decision to take unit has been made.  
Social distancing and site closures have limited capacity to see multiple clients. Triage: priority for clients without secure or safe housing; use check-ins and phone calls for supporting people who have housing already. 
Client intake and engagement/relationship building with newer clients.  Set up intake over the phone; create engagement programs online (social media, email, webinar); have calls that include social and emotional check-ins to deepen a relationship; video calls when possible to imitate a face-to-face meeting. 
Shelters unable to exercise social distancing measures in current setup.  Reduce services to fewer people; cancel programs; serve meals through window; have contactless pantry to deliver food to clients from safe distance.  
Crisis support is difficult when working from home. Set up emergency hotline; provide flexibility to schedule to accommodate crisis; if in-person crisis management needed, provide PPE to client.  
When outbreak occurs, Canada Post will not delivery mail to units/buildings with outbreak. Arrange delivery to head office, redeploy staff to sort mail and deliver periodically with no contact (ie: outside door).  

Client Support 

Challenges  Strategies  
Food access – vulnerable people should not be leaving their houses  Providing gift cards for grocery delivery and setting up delivery accounts for clients that are higher risk so they can have food delivered. 
Clients at higher risk of eviction: some not paying rent, no eviction restrictions mean evictions will come laterPrioritize connecting with landlords and creating a payment plans for the future. Keep up-to-date with RTA rules as they change, inform clients. 
Social distancing and site closures have limited capacity to see multiple clients Triage: priority for clients without secure or safe housing; use check-ins and phone calls for supporting people who have housing already. 
Helping clients with tasks like paying bills is a challenge; over-the-phone explanation is not as effective Provide clients with written, step-by-step guideline for doing tasks that need support, tailored to each type of support needed. Email/mail the printed guide to them, or drop off in their mailbox (distance delivery). 
Housing stabilization is challenging without home visits  Set up weekly checklists for clients to do the work at home themselves; go through the checklist on the phone; include all requirements under RTA; encourage client to walk you through the checklist as if you were doing a home visit.  
Assess clients to provide home visits to those clients with high needs, if possible. 
Clients aren’t familiar with new technology needed to receive support. Set up training; screen record the installation and use of apps and send videos over text that are easy to follow; research YouTube instructional videos on tech tools and send to clients. 
Clients experiencing social isolation no longer have access to groups and programs. Set up online groups and programs; use tools alternative to Facebook like The Mighty Network where clients can connect with each other but not share personal contact information; set up online games and activities for clients using Zoom, provide phone-in number for those without devices/internet.  
Some forms (ie financial applications) require collecting documentation from clients that are in-person (ID copies; signatures) Advocate for allowing photographs of IDs; set up contactless exchange with clients (drop documents, pen, camera, etc on doorstep for client to sign/use, exchange without direct contact, use PPE during exchange).  
Note: Access to Housing is allowing delays during Covid, applications will be backdated, consent forms can be sent later.  
Client schedules and responsibilities have changed, hard to connect.  Let clients make their own appointment times or leave message with their availability; call them at that time even just to say it is not a good time and schedule something else; text regularly to do welfare checks; clearly state service changes and contact instructions in voicemail message.  

Organizational/Work Structure 

Challenges  Strategies  
Needs of the community have changed and continue to evolve and change throughout the pandemic. Re-deploying staff to different departments to manage workflow changes (i.e.: administration; support staff; taking calls; training/educating clients; working in food bank/meal delivery). 
Disconnect between management and work staff is doing. Increased number of team meetings; increase communications; management should be more responsive and get trained on remote team management tools. 
New challenges that have not been seen before or have solutions to.  Open space for discussion to get input from team; make space for asking for help and suggestions in every team meeting.  
Team disconnect – frontline staff working onsite more connected, people working from home disconnected. Team meetings with built-in, structured check-ins that are social as well as work related, more than once a week. Daily morning check-ins to start each day with the full team. 
Staff feeling unsure of workload. Scheduling regular one-on-one check-ins from managers with team members (once a week or every other week) to make sure needs are met and workplan is clear.  
New technologies are being used and hard to adapt to.  Scheduling weekly ‘tech check-ins’ to orient staff on tech and practice using different tools. Provide intra-agency training to staff weekly on any new tools or new ways to use the tools.  
Social distancing in the office is difficult.  Rotating work schedule so only a safe number of team members are in the office at a given time, the others working from home. Rotate the shifts.  
Declaring zones at the office for different teams and team members that are marked and separated safely.  
Not able to monitor social distancing outside the office means safety concerns for the office and client spaces.  Screening and social distancing processes with clearly posted signage for clients as well as staff when they arrive on location.  
Regular office hours don’t always make sense with clients in the current context. Shift hours of working to ensure increased accessibility by clients; have flexible hours rather than increasing the hours worked. 
No access to printer/scanner/stamps/etc from home. Budget for tools required, or for printing and mailing at a shop close to home; alternate days to go in to the office to use those things and do that work in batches. 

Financial Concerns and Considerations  

Challenges  Strategies  
Financial supports have been uncertain, things are changing, new things are offered but eligibility is unclear, OW offices were down for a time and lots of waits.  THAP is processed quickly on the phone; Bridging Grant cheques can be sent to landlords directly.  
Clients don’t have access to technology needed to access services remotely. TELUS and Rogers have donated mobile devices to some agencies; Calls to community for donation of devices that can be used for connecting to internet/social media/ other outlets. 
PPE Availability is limited, and inaccessible due to costs.  There is a shortage of masks and gloves in the city, but agencies should be able to access a fund to purchase those.  
Clients cannot afford PPE, masks. Sourced donations from community members and supporters for homemade masks via social media.  
Staff have to work from home with necessary devices, tools, and high-speed internet connection to ensure access to work.  Taking advantage of City of Toronto funding to provide staff with equipment needed to continue to work from home (headsets; computers; highest speed internet; etc).  

Client Concerns  

Challenges Strategies 
Fears and uncertainty associated with covid 19. Providing educational materials and in-depth updates over the phone or by email. Provide recorded video explaining situation, changes, financial supports, etc that clients can watch on a mobile device. 
Isolation and mental health concerns. Increased frequency of check-ins; doing risk-assessments proactively to identify supports needed; having a more flexible boundary around contact (ie: providing work cell number and extending hours you’ll answer calls). 
Increased risk of domestic violence. Encourage private check-ins; identify signals or codes to check in with clients who can indicate unsafe situations or ask for help discreetly; have a social distance walk check in periodically for privacy and safety. 
Device and technology accessibility. If a client acquires a device, set up a way to train them on how to use it; download apps they may need for them; screen record instructions on how to download an app and text it to them; collect instructional videos for them to watch so they can access the platforms for communicating.  
Internet access. Community housing / shelters wired internet in whole building for free Wi-Fi.  
Parenting and daycare. Be flexible; let clients make appointments around their children’s work/play schedule. 
Changes to services.  Trying to connect clients to new organizations that are providing services that they need; researching community services, doing more referrals.  
Furniture access at move-in. Furniture bank is only doing curbside drop-off, prioritizing emergencies; plan ahead for moving furniture. 
Information, programs, services are changing almost daily and it’s hard to keep up.  Holding regular ‘information sessions’ over conference call or video chat for all existing clients to attend, learn new information, ask questions.  

Self and Collective Care 

A number of strategies for coping with Covid-19 and prioritizing self and collective care can help housing professionals to avoid burnout and solidify the necessary boundaries that will allow the work to continue. 

Challenges Strategies 
Feeling isolated in the work. Prioritizing connection with colleagues and making space and time for social check-ins as well as work-related check-ins. 
Suggestions included:  
  • Friday Fun Day – a meeting dedicated to fun activities and online socializing held weekly.
  • Draws and prizes – gift certificates or other fun prizes to win in a draw every week

  • Moments of humour – sharing jokes and fun facts to start meetings 
Feeling isolated socially. Scheduling time to connect with family and friends regularly. 
Workload increases.  Starting the work day with a routine (ie: stretch, shower, get dressed) to signal a separation of work and life. 
Blurred work/home time due to working from home.  Set a specific work schedule and turn off alerts on devices when outside those hours.   
Anxiety over Covid-19. Set boundaries around reading the news. Schedule your ‘news time’ during the day and only read/watch news during that time.