“Suspending services is not part of our vocabulary,” says Lee Soda, executive director of Agincourt Community Services Association (ACSA).
While the world grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, and businesses, schools, child care services and more keep shutting down, the Scarborough organization Soda manages continues to serve clients who were already in need of support prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, they need it even more.
She admits things have changed operationally and workers have had to take a different approach to how they serve clients.
Taking Torstar journalists through the organization’s homeless drop-in centre at its main office location on Sheppard Avenue, Soda pointed out the following: locked front doors and an empty reception area; an empty room, which this time of year would typically be filled with people at a free tax clinic; an empty hangout room where clients would use computers or play chess or checkers; a completely dry shower area, which the organization says is usually a lifeline amenity for those who are homeless; and an empty dining room where clients would normally be gathered around tables eating a free hot meal.
Though the centre is no longer filled with clients, that doesn’t mean it has stopped supporting them. Clients now walk up to the back door where a staff member, from inside the dining room, hands them a bag filled with a hot meal and a TTC token. Clients can also access their lockers and mail.
Jeff Porter serves breakfast and lunch at Agincourt Community Services Association Tuesday.
All staff members wear a mask and gloves, wash their hands regularly, and maintain physical distance, even from each other. Work days are also shorter because, as Soda points out, front-line workers burn out quicker.
But the work continues and front-line staff keep coming to work.
“This is an essential service. People need help so we have to be here to do what we can, do our part,” said Jeff Porter, who was handing out meals to clients. Clients ask about the changes, Porter explained, and staff members explain them and the clients move on.
Raphel Das, who was preparing the meals in the kitchen, said he’s happy to be at work. He’s prepared to keep doing so as long as he’s not sick.
Even before the Ontario government declared a COVID-19-related state of emergency, Soda said ACSA had already made the decision to drastically change how it operates. It had to close its other homeless drop-in centre, which was too small for staff and clients to effectively maintain social distancing from each other. The one that still operates at its main office is now one of only 10 such services still operating in Toronto.
Cook Raphel Das makes meat sauce for a lasagna he will be making for clients at Agincourt Community Services Association.
The reduction in services is hard on clients, Lee said, and ACSA is still figuring out how to best keep its staff safe and how to keep supporting vulnerable clients. The organization employs about 150 people across all its sites (20 at the main office location); keeping them safe is a constant concern for Soda. Non-front-line staff are working from home, checking in on clients using technology, such as phone, Skype, Zoom and other online tools.
“I think that the hardest thing for me, as the leader of this agency, the hardest thing, the most heart-wrenching, difficult turmoil that has been going on in my head is: How do I continue to offer the essential services while keeping those that we serve safe and the employees that work here at ACSA safe?” she said.
ACSA hopes to find a way to open its tax clinic without having to meet clients in person. It is a vital service that clients depend on to access much-needed financial support from government. Without the clinic, the clients won’t get that.
Lee said anyone who works on the front lines is overwhelmed, but now is not the time to stop.
“I believe that we need maintain our social network for those in our society and in our communities that struggle in a non-COVID time,” she said.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Front-line workers continue to offer essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic, and reporter Dominik Kurek wanted to hear how a Scarborough agency was helping vulnerable populations while maintaining safety for employees and clients.
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