April 29th, 2020

“If You Don’t Have Hope, What Do You Have?”

Keeping the homeless community socially connected during the COVID-19 crisis.
Mental Health

In this age of COVID-19, communities around the world are being asked to remain physically distant. Many of us have turned to technology as a way to bridge the distance, jumping on a Zoom call with friends for an impromptu virtual hang out, or texting and calling family. Technology has become a means to keeping our society socially connected.  Statistically, social connectivity has shown to play an important role in maintaining strong mental health, and in a world where we must rely on computers and cell phones in order to achieve that level of connection, what about those who aren’t able to access technology, or don’t have an easy way to connect with their social circles?
Lauro Monteiro is the Executive Director of Haven Toronto, a drop-in centre where elderly homeless, marginally housed and socially isolated men can feel safe, form and cultivate friendships and feel part of a community. He remains one of many working in the social work industry braving the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, ensuring those who already face barriers like homelessness, pre-existing mental health struggles, compromised immune systems, etc. are provided with the vital services they need during this particularly challenging period.
As a result of physical distancing guidelines, many shelters and centres across major cities like Toronto have been forced to significantly alter the services they provide their clientele and because of this, not only has the homeless community been cut off from support services they require, but many have lost an important way in which they achieve socialization on a day-to-day basis.
“We know that those experiencing homelessness are more disconnected from family and friends and that elderly homeless men are particularly susceptible to heightened levels of suffering, predominantly when it comes to their mental and physical health” says Lauro. “Places like Haven Toronto aim to provide that element of social connectivity. This becomes their community center. There’s lots of research for example that shows the benefits of congregate dining - it's just not about the food and the sustenance. It's about the connectivity with other people as you're sitting around a table sharing a meal. That’s now gone.”

haven toronto mural

Lauro and his colleagues are committed to ensuring Haven remains that safe space for the community they serve through the pandemic - but it hasn’t been an easy road.
“The situation is hectic and stressful right now. All of the services that provide homeless men with mental health support are gone. They don’t have the same access they would typically have, and that will have a tremendous impact on the men we service. I’m very worried about seeing an increase in the number of suicides by elderly men who are homeless over the coming months,” says Lauro. “While Haven remains open, we’ve been forced to severely curtail the services that we offer our clients, including congregate dining. We’ve adjusted to providing meals on a takeout basis as opposed to within a communal dining setting.”
Research overwhelmingly shows that mental health challenges are profound in men, and this can be seen particularly within the elderly homeless community. Currently, 3 out of 4 suicides in Canada are men and globally a man dies by suicide every minute – 60 men each hour. Mental health in Canada is reaching emergency status, even for those who can afford services. This is why mental health support remains an important area of focus for Lauro and the team at Haven, who have brought on two counsellors to assist with interventions and mental health support.
But it’s not all bad. Agencies like Haven remain open as a way of communicating important information to the homeless community, while providing them with maintained social connection and tele-services to provide mental health support. “If you’re homeless, you likely won’t have the proper tools that enable us to communicate – a phone, access to the internet, social media. They don’t know what’s open, what’s closed or how to access any of the services online - that adds significantly to their burden,” Lauro says. Haven’s staff nurses continue to be available to the men on reduced in-person hours, while the team’s doctor continues to visit once a week, while also adding telemedicine services for the men. Haven has also been able to continue to provide their clientele with showers and laundry facilities as well as a place for them to receive mail – a vital resource for those without a fixed address of their own.

“It means a lot to them just knowing we’re still here and trying to operate as best we can. It gives them hope. And if you don’t have hope, what do you have?”

“I am very concerned about the mental health of our clients and the current climate that they’re facing. But Haven will remain open, and the fact that we’re open, that these men see us and continue to have access to our services, helps tremendously,” Lauro says.  “Haven is an anchor. It’s a beacon for the homeless community. There’s nothing special that goes on here – no wizardry or magic. What we’re good at is building relationships and trust with our clients. Many of the men we serve have come to homelessness late in life, and for them just having a steady relationship with us – even in a limited way – is hugely impactful.  And during COVID-19, it means a lot to them just knowing we’re still here and trying to operate as best we can. It gives them hope. And if you don’t have hope, what do you have?”
 “What’s happening now is impacting us all in different ways. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do, where to start or what to say. As we push through this together, we hope we can empower people to connect with others who are struggling and find the help they need now.” Brendan Maher, Global Director of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention at Movember.
Movember recognizes that this unprecedented time presents unique challenges for many people in maintaining positive mental health and social connections, which is why we are providing key tools and resources to support the community with staying connected and managing their mental health, while also empowering them to reach out and provide that support to others. This feature is part of a series focusing on the importance of social connection and communication during the pandemic, and those heroes who are working on the frontlines to protect us, our communities, and our most vulnerable members of the population.

Read more here