Community Conversation: Return to in-person

EYET’s Community Conversation: Return to in-person: Emerging from the COVID-19 Pandemic

During the Community Conversation on August 18, 2022, we hosted a panel discussion with three distinguished guests, each holding management positions within well-known non-profit agencies. They provided their views on how demand for services increased throughout the pandemic and what that entailed for frontline staff at their respective locations. We learned that a high demand for services has continued along with creative and innovative approaches for addressing persistent challenges.

In facilitated small-group conversations, we found that participants were experiencing some of the same challenges at their places of work. Clients appear to have the same or similar needs, as they did during the pandemic, including a need for housing, food security, and employment to name a few.

See below for highlights from the panel discussion followed by notes taken during the breakout activity organized under themes.

Highlights from August 18th Panel Discussion with Alaka Brahma, Rejwan Karim, Sarah Singh:

  • During the first part of the pandemic a number of agencies saw an increase in funding for programs addressing the impacts on community members.
  • Agencies also saw a huge increase in demand for all types of services (Ex. housing, food security, employment, etc.)
  • Demand in housing services has resulted in having to prioritize which clients to help first. For example, helping a survivor of domestic violence versus a first time applicant to Access to Housing.
  • Many of our services had to pivot to virtual, but now that in person offices are opening up again there is an expectation that hybrid models will continue. In some cases, staff were making home visits during the pandemic and now clients are expecting the same level of service while funding cuts are beginning to take place.
  • It was noted that client mental health has been a challenge for frontline staff with more complaints happening. To address this, agencies have been providing training to staff members on de-escalation and conflict resolution, for example.
  • Ensuring staff wellness is also a concern for Managers. Managers have had to make sure staff are well and staff have had to take care of themselves in order to be there for clients.
  • Another strategy mentioned involves placing caps on the number of applications staff have to process to a level staff can realistically achieve.
  • Future outlook is uncertain. Will our services have to close down again? Trying to prepare for that. It is important to reflect on what has been learned and bring these learnings into the future. For example, make sure there is a pool of relief staff to ensure a level of continued service, if staff need to be away.

Notes taken during Breakout Groups:

Hybrid Models

  • Some drop-ins never closed, even during pandemic shutdown restrictions
  • Hybrid (in person, over the phone, by email, visits at home or out in the community)
  • Partially closed agencies that clients had a hard time navigating
  • Agencies that underwent location changes during the pandemic placing more stress on to staff

What we learned: Whether or not an organization closed to in person services during the pandemic, the demand for services has generally gone up and has not decreased. This also means that for services that went virtual or hybrid, there is now an expectation that these alternative service models (in person, over the phone, by email, visits at home and/or out in the community) should continue and have in essence created more work for service professionals.

Challenges Facing our Clients

  • Continued housing crisis at the municipal, provincial and national levels.
  • Clients with mental health, anxiety and anger about the housing situation.
  • Clients not being able to access “in demand” services right away. Having to wait in line just like everybody else.
  • New Access to Housing online centralized waitlist portal: 1) Clients not being able to use the portal independently (no email or laptop) and staff having to essentially process 100% of the application for them. 2) Getting client’s paperwork together for the Access to Housing application (e.g. taxes). 3) Even if someone expresses interest in a unit, does not mean that they will get the unit.
  • The wait for Special Priority Category (SPP) application is more than 1 year to get offers.
  • SPP clients have to live in abusive situations longer. Or live in shelters longer.
  • Continued housing challenges in the private rental market (bidding wars, discriminatory practices by landlords, affordability, etc.)
  • Increased poverty
  • Client scenario: A family of refugees from Afghanistan. They were asked for 4 to 5 months’ rent in advance. It seems as if landlords can ask for anything they want. The family is completely dependent on food banks. They have no furniture. Currently sleeping on carpets.

Strategies and Tactics

  • Staff and managers are having to work together and use what they have access to.
  • Workload caps on the number of clients being served.
    • Even though this helps so that workers don’t get overwhelmed or overworked. This does not necessarily address situations where new clients approach an agency saying that they are about to lose their place or instances where they have already lost their place. So demand is still there.
  • Limiting time spent in direct service with individual clients and placing time limits for how long a client can stay at a drop-in.
  • Frontline staff having to offer emotional support and validation to clients. At the same time asking clients for their patience because this is the reality of the situation right now.

Staff Mental Health and Burnout

  • Supportive supervisors that recognize when staff are becoming overworked and allow for some flexibility to manage this (by allowing staff to come in later the next day for instance).
  • Managers frequently checking in with staff to avoid burnout.
  • Vacation days for staff and ability to arrange coverage.
  • Staff having to move out of Toronto for more affordable housing. Trying to call them back to work is challenging, if they require child care.

Our Present Situation

  • Resources still being offered are helpful like food bank services, hygiene kits, harm reduction supplies, etc.
  • The message from one group was that this is only the beginning of hard times to come. We are not through the pandemic.
  • Regarding funding cuts to housing support programs:
    • We haven’t seen the impact of this as of yet.
    • There is a lack of housing for people.
    • Are cuts to funding going to escalate the current housing crisis?
    • All services are under-resourced. E.g. Food banks, mental health supports, etc.
    • Due to increased poverty it may become more difficult to manage clients living in these situations
    • Essentially there will be less housing resources for people in this city.

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