COVID Lessons #4

Lessons from COVID

Community is Our Super Power –

As Ontario prepares for the delta variant this fall and winter, we know that public health protocols and vaccines need to be ongoing priorities. We also need to actively address the mental health impact that, for many, is a reality of the loss of community networks and connections to others. In the homeless and substance using communities, many individuals’ mental health has also been negatively compounded by the huge number of overdose deaths. It is important to take every possible opportunity to acknowledge these losses, renew our efforts to build trust with these communities, and use a harm reduction model as the best way forward to prevent such events in future. This is especially true for helping individuals who regularly faced barriers to getting their needs met during this pandemic, many of whom remain unvaccinated. “COVID has made it really clear that marginalized people who use drugs often don’t trust medical professionals due to stigma and bad experiences”, states Jesse Klingler, Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) Worker. “Many also don’t trust the COVID vaccine, which of course leaves them vulnerable to the highly-contagious strains, especially as people become more and more tired of the required adaptations like face masking.”

For these individuals, regular, reliable access to Street Health’s OPS and harm reduction drop-ins are services that deliver high impact support. Both provide welcoming, safe spaces for people to find a listening ear, information, resources and referrals. The drop-ins are constantly evolving, using both outdoor and indoor locations that have been adapted to provide social distancing and provide access to a variety of PPE for staff and client safety.

Since April, Street Health has provided an additional weekly drop-in group for non-binary people, trans women and cis women. “Thanks to funding from the City, we are seeing reduced isolation, increased safety and sharing of resources for a largely underserved portion of our community,” reports Mary Kay MacVicar, Harm Reduction Coordinator. “Our drop-in partners – TransPride Toronto and the Bad Date Coalition – addressed specific safety concerns that have been magnified by the COVID pandemic and helped attain a deeper level of engagement for participants. Offering gender-specific programming within the homeless and street-involved community allows people to gain a sense of connection and empowerment.”

The Wednesday night, community-wide drop-in is funded through the United Way. “A few weeks ago the drop-in had a memorial-focused evening,” states Chaudhry Ahmed, Harm Reduction Drop-in Projects Coordinator.  “The community came together to name, share stories and grieve those we have lost due to overdoses during COVID.” 

In communities where face-to-face interactions are the main form of information sharing, drop-ins are an essential part of building relationships of trust and belonging that are essential to people’s wellbeing.

“We can help clients deal with issues like vaccine hesitancy and grief because our drop-in workers are peers who offer their own experiences and encourage those who are facing similar circumstances,” states Chaudhry. “That connection, along with having the health bus, staffed with outreach workers and nurses, supports barrier-free access for both mental and physical concerns. The Harm Reduction Team has also been providing one-on-one accompaniment to vaccine locations. Sometimes, just having an advocate by your side, can make the difference for people’s ability to cope in this changing environment.”

 “COVID has certainly shown us how everyone longs for and benefits when they have a sense of belonging,” recognizes Mary Kay. “It doesn’t matter who or where you are, having a sense of connection and community makes an essential contribution to people’s wellbeing.”

Watch for our final Lesson from COVID in the next few weeks. Be safe!