Front line workers feed the less fortunate during pandemic

Port Alberni, BC

It’s 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, Apr. 1 and a couple of vehicles pull up to the entrance of the Salvation Army building on Argyle Street in Port Alberni. One-by-one people enter the foyer, pick up a grocery hamper then leave while a volunteer sprays down the door with disinfectant before the next person enters.

John Edmondson and Captain Michael Ramsay are working together to coordinate supplies, donations, volunteers and distribution of the food to those in need. They spoke to Ha-Shilth-Sa about how their organization and others are working together to safely deliver food to people in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

“The front doors of the Salvation Army [are] being used as an outlet for handing out food to the people,” said Edmondson. He went to say that the Bread of Life, the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Salvation Army are working together to provide cold lunches, hot meals and food hampers to those that need it in the city.

Social distancing requirements have forced changes in how food is prepared and delivered to the people.

“There are challenges,” said Edmondson, “most volunteers come from the senior citizen population so they need to stay home to protect themselves.”

The service organization reorganized, streamlining where food is prepared and how it is handled.

“The silver lining is that we came together and in a few hours came up with a plan that maximizes community resources in an efficient way,” said Edmondson.

There are no longer daily meals being served, because there is a ban on seating people together for food service. Food is being dispensed in lunch bags or in food hampers. Some people walk in to get food and others drive up. On this day there were seniors and young parents that drove in to pick food up.

Cyndi Stevens, Executive Director at the Port Alberni Friendship Center, says they are operating on a limited basis, and are waiting for federal relief funding to come in. She notes that there will likely be strings attached to how the funds are utilized but her limited staff are working hard to provide food and services as safely as possible and on a very limited basis.

“There is nowhere in town where someone can get a free cup of coffee,” said Stevens.

And that small thing means so much to the homeless population and to those that enjoy the social connection that comes with sharing a cup of coffee.

“Our front door is open and we provide coffee in a careful way,” Stevens said.

A staff member will hand a cup of coffee to a client in the foyer.

“It feels very unfriendly but we have to do it that way or we couldn’t do it at all,” she added.

The PAFC has a regular clientele of homeless and marginalized people that rely on them for food. Some of the staff will cook up whatever they have on hand to feed people – it might be yogurt and fruit, or sometimes there are eggs or oatmeal to warm some bellies.

“Lunches are cooked every day and boxed up for delivery,” said Stevens.

They have served up spaghetti, chili and shepherd’s pie with salad.

“There’s not enough for everyone but we’re trying,” said Stevens.

Captain Ramsay of the Salvation Army expects that there will be an increased demand for food services as people are laid off or can’t otherwise get food.

“We have regulars we see at the Bread of Life, but as access to secure food decreases, we start to see new faces coming in for hampers,” he said.

The service organizations are using two kitchens with a volunteer crew of about 10 to 12 people that prepare the meals and build the food hampers. They welcome any donation of food.

“We are working to get the numbers of First Nations in town, including homeless Indigenous people; we hope to be able to make efficient use of resources by combining resources,” Ramsay said.

In addition to dispensing food donations, both the Salvation Army and the PAFC are working on delivering hampers to people that can’t leave their homes. Elderly people, those with compromised immune systems and the handicapped are a few examples of people forced to stay at home.

To follow the provincial social distancing and isolation requirements, it would be best if people stayed home and had food delivered to their doors, but this is not possible for the homeless population, who often lived clustered together somewhere outdoors.

“We need to keep people safe, but still fed,” said Ramsay.

Stevens has been extremely busy at the PAFC on the phone searching for funding to deliver much-needed food and services to clients. Her staff has been greatly reduced due to forced layoffs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had to shut down many groups due to the strict rules around close quarters,” she said.

Her existing staff has had to find new ways to move around the building to maintain social distance. The PAFC continues to deliver some services by phone, including legal advocacy and mental health and addictions.

“We know that some people don’t have phones so we allow them to use the lobby phone to speak to staff members, and then the phone is disinfected after each use,” shared Stevens.

The PAFC daycare has had to reconfigure it services and hours.

“We have 10 short-term spaces available for essential services workers,” said Stevens.

Contact the PAFC to register; the daycare hours during this period of time are 8:30 4:00 p.m.

Stevens is concerned for her elders working in the Daycare.

“There are lots of people feeling isolated; elders are super lonely,” she noted.

Stevens hopes to set up a video conferencing service for her elders who teach the Nuu-chah-nulth language so that they can communicate remotely with the daycare children they so desperately miss.

“People’s spirits are fairly good,” said Stevens. “People seem most concerned about the unknown – that is the most stressful thing to think about.”

The PAFC has also reduced its hours from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Legal advocates at the PAFC can assist clients with residential tenancy matters, Employment Insurance applications, grant applications and rental subsidies.

Stevens says that she hopes the PAFC can deliver more in the coming weeks when anticipated federal funding arrives.

To help with the collective effort to feed Port Alberni’s hungry, donations to the Alberni COVID-19 Community Response can be made through the group’s Facebook page. So far almost $10,000 has been raised towards the group’s $100,000 goal.

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