By Allan McKee
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Queen’s Park was implementing public health measures and essential service providers were closing their doors, Angie Hocking did something that has become ever-present in recent months: she joined a Zoom call. On the call were 25 churches from every corner of the Diocese of Toronto, trying to find ways to keep their frontline workers safe and continue to provide food, clothing and other supplies to people who rely on their services.
“I’ve been so impressed and encouraged by churches engaged in outreach and continuing this work,” says Ms. Hocking.
She knows how much that people rely on services that churches provide. As the director of outreach at the Church of the Redeemer in downtown Toronto, she oversees its drop-in program, The Common Table, which serves people experiencing homelessness, mental health challenges and addiction. Typically, daily life for them is stressful and precarious, but the pandemic – and the public health measures to combat it – have made it more complicated, she says. “Things were already on thin ice for them. A pandemic just cracks that ice wide open.”
Keeping the church’s program open wasn’t an easy decision, considering the health risks posed by the pandemic. “There are very good reasons to close and very good reasons to stay open,” she says. “We decided that we’re going to focus on what we can do really well. We’re going to commit to being a good food provider and a good community anchor.”
That decision to stay open has proven to be a lifeline for hundreds of people experiencing homelessness in Toronto. Since the onset of the pandemic, the number of people using the program has nearly doubled, from about 70 people per day to about 130. Meanwhile, the drop-in has been reduced to providing meals at the side door. Partnerships with local restaurants provide 100 meals per day, while staff make 30 meals per day for those with dietary restrictions.
“Our people are so grateful to show up and get a meal” she says. “It shows how hungry people are.”
Around the same time, staff at All Saints Church-Community Centre, east of Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, were anxious that there wouldn’t be enough personal protective equipment to continue to safely provide frontline services, such as food, tents, blankets and other essentials. The Rev. Dr. Alison Falby, priest-in-charge, was worried she wouldn’t be able to keep the church’s drop-in program open without her dedicated staff.
“I really wasn’t sure if we would have the staff to stay open. That was my biggest worry,” she says. “But our staff and volunteers are a very committed bunch.”
They’re so committed that in the first month of the pandemic, volunteers cooked big batches of casseroles and chili off-site and brought them safely to All Saints to feed their clients. Now, Dr. Falby has arranged for individually packaged meals to be delivered five days a week, but the dedication of her staff and volunteers in the early stages was invaluable.
“We couldn’t have gotten through without them,” she says.
For them, there was never a question of not wanting to continue to support the people who visit All Saints. The work is meaningful for them, which is what keeps them going, she says. “They love the people.”
Due to social distancing restrictions, they have had to limit the number of people admitted to the drop-in to 25, reducing the number of people they can serve. Staff members aren’t able to provide as much support as they would like to. “We have fewer opportunities to
connect with people on a human level, and that makes me really sad,” she says.
The human connection that All Saints provides has a significant impact on the people its frontline workers serve, and its loss is that much more deeply felt. In 2015, the Halo Project found that All Saints prevented 69 suicides, 150 incarcerations, and helped 260 people with drug or alcohol abuse. If All Saints hadn’t stayed open to serve people through the pandemic, there would be more overdoses, suicides, crime, and more people experiencing hunger and sleep deprivation in its community, Dr. Falby says.
The Rev. Leigh Kern, the Diocese’s Indigenous ministries coordinator, has been serving members of Toronto’s Indigenous population, including pregnant mothers, elders and residential school survivors who live on the street.
Through the Toronto Urban Native Ministry and Church of the Holy Trinity, they have been serving 200 meals a day, six days a week, and arranged for culturally appropriate mobile testing of COVID-19 to be provided where people live.
“It’s been an exhausting 11 weeks in providing for our community’s basic needs and helping them survive,” she says. “Their way of life needs to be supported.”
But providing that support comes at a significant health risk, she adds. Despite wearing personal protective equipment, there is still a chance that she or her colleagues could get COVID-19. “We knew that we were all taking a risk. But the health impact on this community is devastating.”
It’s not just churches in downtown Toronto that are continuing to provide essential services. St. John the Evangelist in Peterborough has continued serving meals at the door to anyone who needs one. Typically, St. John’s One Roof drop-in program serves meals on plates with silverware like a restaurant. Now, after scrambling for takeout containers, it serves individually packaged meals by the door, says the Rev. Brad Smith, incumbent.
“The staff were amazing at being able to pivot,” he says. “Everyone was on board.”
The early dedication of the staff was critical, especially in the first week when St. John’s was the only meal program in Peterborough, he says. They knew there was a need for their services, but due to physical distancing restrictions they couldn’t provide the medical, social and hygienic care they usually provide.
“It was easy to decide to stay open. It was hard to decide not to do everything else,” he says.
For now, at 1 p.m. every weekday, tents and picnic tables are set up outside the church and visitors stand behind orange lines six feet apart. Staff wearing personal protective equipment place a meal on the table, step away and then the visitor takes their lunch. The process minimizes physical contact as much as possible.
“We’re doing the best we can to keep everyone safe,” he says. “We depend on our fantastic staff and need them to stay healthy to continue the program.”
Back on Zoom, Angie Hocking continues to host a weekly Zoom call with over a dozen churches doing outreach across the province. They share resources, establish best practices and host guest speakers. Churches across the Diocese say funding and supplies of personal protective equipment are common challenges. But these are challenges best met together, she says. “The least we can do is band together. We have a nice group now that we didn’t have before.”