As the number of local closures, cancellations and other impacts of COVID-19 preparation efforts continue to rise, officials at local agencies say they’re worried about how the evolving situation could impact vulnerable residents, including those living in poverty.
“I’m concerned about the people that the charitable sector and the not-for-profit sector serve in our community,” said Francesca Dobbyn, executive director of the United Way of Bruce Grey.
“How do homeless people and people who are couch-surfing self-isolate? And people who rely on hot meal programs, like OSHaRE and places like Safe ‘n Sound and hot lunch programs that happen in other communities, what’s going to happen if they have to self-isolate?”
She said she’s also worried about how those who are “precariously employed” – people who have no benefits and don’t get paid if they don’t work – will be affected if their workplace closes or they have to self-quarantine.
“So the secondary piece of people losing income. How are they going to eat, how are they going to pay the rent, how are they going to pay the mortgage?”
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the province to announce that all publicly funded schools in Ontario will be closed until April 5. Some daycares will also be closed, while many programs, including at some local libraries and museums, as well as sporting and other events, have been cancelled.
But, as of Friday, officials at organizations like Safe ‘n Sound, the Owen Sound Salvation Army, Owen Sound Hunger and Relief Effort (OSHaRE) and Home & Community Support Services of Grey Bruce, said they were still providing services to vulnerable people in the community.
Colleen Trask-Seaman, executive director of OSHaRE, said the organization is still providing meals each weekday at its space on 3rd Avenue East.
“We are putting in place our first phase, which is that we still serve guests in the evening but our volunteers will be gloving up to do clean-up. We’re also encouraging all volunteers to stay home if they are sick and we will be encouraging guests that if they’re not feeling well that we will have meals ready and they won’t have to stay here to eat,” she said.
Trask-Seaman said she spoke with the Grey Bruce Health Unit Friday and they were happy with the organization’s protocols.
But OSHaRE, like other local organizations, are looking ahead to what other measures it might have to put in place if the virus is confirmed in Grey-Bruce or the pandemic continues to worsen.
“We’re working on a plan so that if people were quarantined that we would make sure that they’re still getting food,” she said, noting 105 people were served at OSHaRE Thursday.
Toni McGregor-Callaghan, executive director of Safe ‘n Sound, said as of Friday the organization was also planning to continue providing lunch daily at its drop-in centre in downtown Owen Sound. Thirty to 80 people access that service each day.
Like OSHaRE, officials at Safe ‘n Sound are also discussing what to do if the situation worsens.
“Do we hand out lunch-to-go at the door?” she said.
Alice Wannan of the Owen Sound Salvation Army said all of the organization’s non-essential services, such as its kids’ programs and activities at the church, have been suspended until further notice.
However, the food bank will remain open.
“We are considered an essential service. We need to make sure that those who are the most vulnerable in our community, who probably don’t have the best immune systems, are getting food. We have no plans at closing at this point,” she said.
Staff will continue to monitor the situation each day, she said, and it could, depending on what happens with the outbreak, change the way it serves its clients.
“If there was a confirmed local case, we may close the shopping room for the food bank and just do pre-packaged food hampers,” she said. “That’s not where we are right now, but that is something that we may end up putting in place.”
If people do end up having to self-quarantine, Wannan said staff at the food bank will work with them on a case-by-case basis.
“That’s the message we’re giving to everybody that’s coming in to use the food bank. Last month, we saw just over 550 folks, so that’s the message we’re telling people right now – if something changes for you in the next two days or two months, just make sure you’re phoning in because we’re going to make sure we get you food,” she said.
Officials with OSHaRE, Safe ‘n Sound and the Owen Sound Salvation Army are among those who are planning to attend a “Poverty, health and COVID-19” information session Monday morning, which is being presented by the United Way of Bruce Grey in partnership with the Grey Bruce Health Unit and the Community Foundation Grey Bruce.
Representatives of local charities and not-for-profit organizations are expected to discuss at that event topics like how to support vulnerable clients during a pandemic, will people require more supports than are currently provided and how people who rely on free community hot meal programs will be able to eat if they are told to stay home, Dobbyn said.
Officials with the Grey Bruce Health Unit will be at the meeting and are planning to address topics like best practices for the not-for-profit sector during a pandemic and assisting clients and program users during a pandemic.
Andy Underwood, executive director of Home & Community Support Services of Grey Bruce, said the organization’s Meals on Wheels, accessible transportation, Day Away and respite programs have not been suspended or substantially changed, but the situation is “fluid” and is being reassessed regularly.
“I’m not sure how we will be responding to Meals on Wheels because some of those people have no other access to nutrition, so we’re looking to the safest way to ensure that they do have some food,” he said.
“For the people we serve with higher needs, like people in adult day programs and our overnight respite program, we are making contingencies to bring in our Priority 1 clients and continue serving them because if they cannot get out, some of them will probably end up in the hospital, which is the last thing anyone wants at this point.”
Dobbyn said she’s also concerned about how required self-isolation could impact the mental health of people living in poverty.
“The mental health side of this thing is going to be huge. The post-traumatic stress of it all,” she said.