By Scott Small
I cannot remember a single day in the past 3 months I have not had at least one conversation with others asking me what is going to happen this winter when the second wave of Covid-19 comes. As the chairperson for the Homelessness Services Association of BC I think about that often.
Most people in BC are familiar with Dr. Bonnie and her warnings of the challenges that winter will bring with Covid-19, which we are grateful for. But there is another less known person’s words buzzing around my brain when talk of this Pandemic and the impact on the vulnerable people in our communities comes up. She is not with a Health Authority, or even a doctor. Certainly not a theologian, but rather a British-American social justice and health care advocate. Ophelia Dahl is President and Executive Director of Partners in Health, a Boston, Massachusetts-based non-profit health care organization dedicated to providing a “preferential option for the poor.”
In 2017, she described the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa as “Acute on Chronic.” What she meant was that the immediate harms of the outbreak came on top of the ongoing structural issues faced by the West African Nations.
As we settle into a new routine under COVID, we find that nothing is routine. COVID exposures are in our schools and community. Care homes are impacted by outbreaks. Our governments are imposing new limits to keep this pandemic from spreading. Still, Jesus commands us to “Go and make disciples.” We do this by obeying the guidelines provided by our government authorities, church leadership, insurers, and parents. Then, we work together to figure out what can be done in-person and what must be done virtually at a distance. Building Christ-centred boys and young men isn’t that complicated even under COVID. CSB is partnering with our churches and boys’ groups to develop a comprehensive strategy of options through which churches and their men can build the next generations for Christ. Under COVID, we will find new ways to bring others to our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Check out: www.csbbc.org/brigade-under-covid for the details.
I hear her words now, and feel directly the acute problems from Covid-19 adding additional weight to the already chronic problems with our insufficient social welfare system in Canada. The tales of troubles in the DTES have been around for generations. Yet no matter how many governments talk about the problem or even how many resources are invested in the community via, the Homelessness Services sector, the problem remains to be solved and only grows more out of control.
Canada has struggled coast to coast to coast for decades to properly address the complex needs of vulnerable individuals experiencing homelessness, without getting close to solving the core issues.
The Homelessness services sector exists to catch people who fall between the cracks in ordinary time. Long before the virus became headline news it was all too well known that Canada has fallen short of providing adequate support to the most vulnerable amongst us in our society. Now we are facing unprecedented times that are stretching our already scarce resources in ways we could not have imagined or planned for.
I must share explicitly; I am not writing here to argue for more funding. What I am presenting now is that the problem of homelessness, and even the related opioid death crisis, are actually a much greater systematic by-product that exists because of many other inadequate investments of resources upstream, and poor responses downstream, to needs from affordable social housing, seniors in poverty, systemic racism, unresolved indigenous issues, loneliness, isolation, mental illness, and addiction. These chronic unmet needs are more painful and problematic for our society, cities, communities, and individual relationships now because of Covid-19.
Life on Board
Ray was not happy. Still aboard his ship even though his contract had expired, this young Filipino sailor recently spoke with a Lighthouse chaplain in Vancouver about his stress and desire to return home. He also mentioned some difficult relationships on board that were contributing to his tension.
Ray was quite open and shared about his involvement in Church-related activities when at home. He had an apparent desire to serve the Lord in some manner but was unsure about how to do this. The chaplain briefly spoke to Ray about this but, more importantly, about his salvation. This mariner seemed to be open to Jesus but was not clear about his commitment, so the chaplain tried to encourage the young fellow to come to Jesus alone for life.
“This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) www.sealight.org
This virus is just the latest slice of a long-standing problem pie that has been baking for far too many years. And worse, I believe that we have barely begun to see the fallout in our communities of Covid-19 that will sting this winter, and have consequences that will last many years after.
But it does not need to be all bad news, and loss upon loss. The acute burden of the second wave piling on top of our already chronic problems can be a blessing. It can be a second opportunity for the Church to build and rebuild broken relationships with those in need. We, the Church, are called to identify with the broken. We need the needy as much as they need us.
Very soon, if not already, people who have sat beside us for years in our pews will be approaching the Church asking for a little back of what they put in the baskets. Or worse they will turn away in shame and just disappear. I am witnessing first-hand new ,never before seen, people arriving at Catholic Charites Men’s Shelter, Salvation Army, UGM, and First United all with similar stories. They are experiencing homelessness for the first time in their lives, after a lifetime of stability, because of the Pandemic.
Last February, when starting to follow the news, I wondered how the Corona Virus would impact our lives. By March I learned the hard lesson of everything changing. I know this winter Catholic Charites and the sector shelter providers are in far better places now compared to where we were six months ago. There is an abundance of PPE, upgraded Pandemic Plans, guests aware of the landscape, and staff trained for what, we believe, will be a significant surge in positive cases within our immediate environment. But it still does not mean we are ready for this winter.
“I’m fine.” Ask any man how he’s doing and that’s his answer. He may have lost his job, or his marriage could be heading for divorce, or his teenager may be strung out on drugs, or he may be contemplating suicide, but he’s “fine”. No. he’s not! And this COVID pandemic is forcing a lot of guys into deeper isolation; after all, “Everybody has enough problems of their own.”
Men’s Ministry is a vital part of building men. Some churches recognize this and intentionally create opportunities for fellowship between men. They meet for Men’s Breakfasts, coffee and other meals. Big groups or just a handful of men. They build things, fix things, help others. They may not even talk, yet they are bonding in Christ, sharing burdens and joys. Other churches just allow this to happen naturally. The CSB Men’s Network helps churches be intentional. Check out: https://www.csbbc.org/mens-network.html for details.
I have faith that as the second wave of Covid-19 infections come, that regardless of what happens in the Homelessness Sector and the communities we are in, that God and the Church will be a gentle whisper bringing peace. Peace in the form of the body of Christ coming together in prayer, compassionate actions by humble hands and hearts, welcoming and helping to heal the most vulnerable among us.
Scott Small has been with Catholic Charities for over a dozen years now stewarding multiple poverty- based ministries with the mandate of connecting the poor in Vancouver with both social services and spiritual resources. Every day, both delighted and humbled being a bridge helping to narrow the gap between curious people inside the pews of Catholic Parishes and people living outside in communities in and around Vancouver. Scott has been very active and humbled outside the Church, much of this time with GVSS, ShelterNet, and now HSABC with a variety of roles including his most recent position on the board as chairperson.
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