This is part three in our multi-part series exploring Distress Centre’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one year after we first activated our business continuity plan and went remote for the safety of our staff and volunteers.
This story looks at the response of our housing programs at SORCe. Please be aware of our “Dos” and “Don’ts” when using any data from this story.
Distress Centre (DC) provides multiple programs and services at SORCe – the Safe Communities Opportunity and Resource Centre – a multi-agency collaborative where agencies work together to connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness with programs and services to assist them.
Typically, SORCe programs are provided on a walk-in, in-person basis only, meaning that DC’s programs at SORCe are among our most impacted by the pandemic.
On March 15th, 2020, SORCe first announced that they would be suspending in-person services and moving to phone support.
In order to ensure the health and well-being of the staff working at SORCe, we are temporarily moving to phone support only. SORCe will not be providing in person support until further notice. Stay tuned for more information as we iron out the details…
— SORCe (@SORCecalgary) March 16, 2020
“Walk in service is what we do, as that is how our clients typically access services.” said Duane Gillissie, Director of Programs at SORCe and currently the Interim Executive Director. “We had to quickly adapt to a new reality, which was that we could not see our clients in-person, and had to learn a few lessons from Distress Centre’s other programs so that we could work remotely and our staff could stay in contact with our clients.”
By March 23rd, phone support was fully operational and the staff worked hard to stay connected to their clients. Unfortunately, the Financial Empowerment program can only be done in person and it had to be suspended until in-person services could resume. The staff member from that program began assisting DC’s Basic Needs Fund program instead.
The Calgary Homeless Foundation contacted DC at SORCe early in the pandemic and asked us to help connect homeless individuals to support once they were released from the isolation hotel.
“The goal was to at least get people into some kind of transitional housing program, until something more permanent could be found,” said Duane. “We assessed everybody who went to the hotel and a lot of those people did then go into a housing program and some were placed in more permanent supportive housing.”
Challenges and Outreach
The clients who visit SORCe typically don’t have access to phones or other technology, which is why SORCe has always focused on walk-in services. Moving to phone-only services had a large impact on how well DC at SORCe could support clients.
“Most of our calls were from new clients and ones we would not typically work with,” said Duane. “The people that are actively homeless weren’t reaching out.”
This had further reaching implications. When services for people experiencing homelessness shut down, people will begin to congregate in the Plus 15, bus shelters or C-train stations, which put a strain on other city services.
At the end of June, DC at SORCe launched an outreach program in which staff would go out into the community and reach out to clients at spots where they would usually be. They would check in on how they were doing and update their assessments if their needs had changed.
This allowed DC at SORCe to connect again with people who we typically interacted with before the pandemic. However, it had its own challenges as the risk increased for staff, who did not have the security measures found at SORCe to rely on.
Reopening safely was the best long-term solution.
“Staff were worried about clients who have lost a lifeline that has existed for the last six years,” said Duane. “They were excited to be thinking about going back, with the normal reservations.”
A cross-agency committee was formed in May 2020 for the purpose of developing policies and procedures to re-open for in-person services while keeping staff and clients as safe as possible.
EllisDon, a construction and building services company that sponsors our ConnecTeen youth program, connected with SORCe in the summer and expressed an interest in supporting the renovation of the location so they could re-open. EllisDon introduced SORCe to FRANK Architecture who brought the vision to life.
Construction began and SORCe was able to partially reopen to clients in mid-November and support them while the remaining construction was completed. By January 2021, construction was finished and they had completely reopened. They extended their hours and ended their phone service in February 2021, returning to walk-in services only.
“Now the construction is done, we couldn’t be happier,” said Duane. “It’s exactly what we wanted and needed, and it’s allowed us to be open, while ensuring everyone’s safety.”
The renovations also allowed SORCe to move to a controlled entry model, which is something they had wanted to do even before the pandemic. The model allows them to limit the number of clients in the space at any given time and spend more time addressing an individual’s needs.
New services and moving forward
The DC team at SORCe was able to secure funding for five temporary services to meet the needs of people affected by homelessness who may now have increased vulnerability and risk due to the pandemic. We began hiring for these positions in December 2020.
“People affected by homelessness are at increased risk of getting COVID,” said Duane. “They often do not have the ability to get clean masks, or to wash or sanitize hands. They are much more likely to have other health conditions that put them at greater risk. And the nature of shelters, as congregate living spaces, does not allow for adequate physical distancing.”
Many people are avoiding shelters, which means there are more people sleeping outside compared to previous years. The new services help people exit homelessness faster or provide basic needs that will help them survive outside during winter. Learn more about these services on the SORCe website.
Distress Centre’s team at SORCe had to adapt and pivot in a way unlike any of our other programs, due to the unique needs of the clients. Though it was a long road back to re-opening in-person services, it allows us to best support some of the most vulnerable people in Calgary.
“We’re so excited to be open again,” said Duane. “Our numbers aren’t what they used to be but we are seeing steady increases, which is great.”