While many Manitobans have had to adjust to the COVID-19 lockdown, some of the province’s most vulnerable citizens have lost social opportunities and access to resources, members of a Winnipeg community ministry say.
In West Broadway, many community organizations have had to adjust their services since March, including the West Broadway Community Ministry.
Before the pandemic, the community ministry, at the corner of Furby Street and Broadway, served as a drop-in for many of the city’s most vulnerable citizens, including people living in poverty, or with addictions or disabilities.
People “could come into the building, they come into the drop-in centre and sit there, have coffee, have a hot meal, chat or hang out,” said Tammy Kutzak, a volunteer at West Broadway Community Ministry.
“It was a place where people go laugh, play cards. Some would have … a knitting group going on, and we have a seniors’ group going, and we have [an] art group going. So there was stuff for people to do there.”
Now, with public gatherings in Manitoba limited to a maximum of five people, the ministry has had to halt its drop-in programming.
Its indoor lunch program was stopped at the beginning of the pandemic, and the ministry had hoped to restart it — but Winnipeg’s move to the red, or critical, level of the provincial COVID-19 pandemic response system at the start of November prevented that.
The community ministry also offered a laundry program, which had a limited opening during the first part of the pandemic but has also had to stop for now.
The restrictions have also forced many businesses and services to close their doors to the public entirely, including public libraries.
Community members and staff working at the West Broadway ministry say the closure of libraries has meant the loss of a vital meeting place for those who do not have strong social connections to either friends or families.
Under the latest health orders, Manitobans are also forbidden from having any visitors in their homes.
Increased demand for reduced services
Pandemic-related changes at the West Broadway Community Ministry mean the only services community members can access now are bagged lunches, which are handed out through a window four days a week, and access to emergency food every two months.
The community ministry says there’s been an increased demand for the services it can still offer in the last couple months.
“I think we were seeing about 100 people a day, and now we’re serving … between 150 and 200 people a day,” said Lara Rae, who works for the ministry as their floor manager.
“So I’d say we’ve increased our capacity by about 50 or 60 per cent.”
Mark Olfert, who lives in West Broadway and volunteers at the ministry, said the feeling there has changed.
“Well, I felt kind of lonely … because over time you develop lots of good friendships. You get to know people and then it just feels like it’s just [a] complete reversal … down to just seeing just a handful of people,” he said.
“It was so different.”
Connecting with others can be very important to improving health outcomes and helping to mitigate the effects of anxiety and depression, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Staff at the community ministry say during the pandemic, they’ve observed the effects of losing that connection.
“I see an increase in aggression. I see an increase in violence on the streets,” Rae said.
“There are some issues with both increased drug use and inconsistent drug supplies, which have added to an increase in overdose deaths. I think we’ve lost at least at least five community members since I started working here to overdose.”
Many residents and staff were looking forward to reopening the ministry in a physically distanced manner, but those plans were derailed by Winnipeg’s move to red-level restrictions.
“We were all poised to open up a café in here, where we were going to serve lunches to at least 15 people,” Rae said.
“Of course, with the rising escalating [COVID-19] numbers, that’s something we’ve had to put on the back burner. We’re looking very forward to having the opportunity to open that up again.”