A client accesses The Mustard Seed’s food service. The Calgary agency is predicting a tough winter ahead. Photo courtesy The Mustard Seed

Tough times ahead for shelters, food banks

  • November 18, 2022

Though Canada has largely entered a post-pandemic landscape in recent months, lingering scars from the two-year public health emergency mingled with fresh economic challenges are forcing homeless shelters to brace for a tough winter.

Rowena Browne, chief development officer of The Mustard Seed in Calgary, told The Catholic Register about the food inflation tribulations the Christian non-profit, founded in 1984, is currently experiencing.

“I would say the environment that we are in post-pandemic has been challenging and overwhelming. The prices of food have been quite difficult for us at the Mustard Seed to navigate because the price of meat and chicken, turkey, dairy — everything you can imagine has either tripled or doubled in price,” said Browne.  

“In one of the cities where we operate in central Alberta, we do a lot of food hampers. We have seen our hampers double in need. Not just individuals who need a hamper, but we see a lot of couples and families with young children standing in line — and they are coming multiple times.”

The story for Fontbonne Ministries, a charity founded in 2000 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, reads very similar to The Mustard Seed’s situation.

“There is a big increase we’re experiencing of people in need of food and clothing,” said Leanne Kloppenborg, Fontbonne’s director of mission integration and volunteers. “On the weekend, we used to have lunches for maybe 100 to 150 people — now it’s 300 plus that we serve with takeaway lunches.”

Late in October, Food Banks Canada released its annual report revealing that there were 1.5 million visits to food banks in March 2022, a figure 15-per-cent higher than the number of visits the year before, and 35-per-cent more than the number of visits in March 2019 — one year before the pandemic emerged. 

Kirstin Beardsley, CEO of Food Banks Canada, characterized the data as “devastating” in an interview with The Canadian Press. 

“What we are seeing is the combination of long-term effects to a broken social safety net combined with the effects of inflation and high costs driving more people to use food banks than ever before in Canadian history,” she said.

“Behind each one of these numbers is a person who is struggling too much to get by.”

A tragic consequence of the prolonged periods of social isolation and lockdowns throughout the country has been the sharp rise in domestic abuse incidents. A study released in January, led by Wilfrid Laurier University Social Work Professor Halina Haag, spoke to survivors, executive directors/managers of organizations serving survivors, direct service providers and employer/union representatives.

Reviewing the testimonies recorded with 24 participants from these four different stakeholder groups found that “COVID-19 as increased rates and severity of IPV (intimate partner violence),” and it also increased “barriers to services in terms of both provision and uptake.”

Haag said profound stress and financial anxieties manufactured by pandemic restrictions caused abusive behaviour to manifest from people that were formerly non-violent. 

The Mustard Seed can attest about the “shadow pandemic” of IPV.

“The rise in domestic violence across the country has been quite significant,” said Browne. “We have been hit hard with that. Previous to COVID, we had about I would say under 25 women in our shelters in Calgary. We have seen the numbers go all the way up to upwards of mid-70s per night.”

It has also been well documented that increased feelings of loneliness and depression affected children, teenagers and adults young and old in the thick of the pandemic, and now during this transition back into an environment closer to the way things were before 2020.

“We have seen an increase in people expressing their loneliness and their sense of social isolation in the people we serve all across the board,” said Kloppenborg. “We have seen an increase in people asking for a friendly visitor, for example, because they lost their support systems for whatever reason.”

As Catholics prepare to observe the World Day of the Poor Nov. 13, Kloppenborg has some insights for people to consider. 

“There are people who are struggling who are like you and me. For whatever reason, they have fallen through the cracks or have experienced obstacles in their lives that we can walk with them through,” she said. 

“We acknowledge that there are poor people among us, but the thing is there are people among us who need help in different ways. I would say maybe also think of poverty as not just economic, but also poverty in terms of the social isolation that people are experiencing, and poverty with not having friends they can count on or family support. These are all things that can make people vulnerable and feel like their lives are hard,” she said.

Government leaders in Canada and around the world forecast a grim economic outlook for the remainder of 2022 that will stretch into 2023. Many economists expect Canada will dip into a recession in the first quarter of next year. 

This reality would only intensify the pressures on entities like The Mustard Seed and Fontbonne Ministries. Already, in early November, there are over 370 Calgarians staying at the Mustard Seed’s shelter, which is slightly over the recommended 350 capacity.

“We’re not fully into winter yet. We expect by 2023 that we’ll be over capacity. We kind of heard already where people are trying to triage supports in the High River and Cochrane areas because shelters are full.”

All this is occurring as COVID lingers. Browne said there are guests in the shelter diagnosed with COVID-19. Managing this situation is logistically tricky as attendants have the extra responsibility to execute proper social-distancing protocols.

A difficult winter seems like an inevitable scenario, but the burdens would be lightened if volunteer numbers rebounded closer to where they were before the pandemic. Businesses, churches, families and high schools provided key support that lightened the burden on Mustard Seed staff. Annually, over 40,000 volunteers provided their time and effort to support The Mustard Seed throughout Alberta before the pandemic. Volunteer ranks have shrunk by over 50 per cent.

“When we don’t get our volunteers, we have to staff our team to work extra to make up for the time for services that still need to get deployed and delivered,” said Browne. “Before the pandemic, we really relied on our volunteers for those jobs.

“We really need volunteers, food donations and things like jackets and toques and other items of warm clothing right now.”

Above all, Browne said she prays for The Mustard Seed to maintain its “resiliency to face this tough winter.” 

Her voice rings with joy when speaking about the ministry the staff carries out day by day in this tough societal climate. 

“The work we do is God’s work. We are serving something greater than ourselves, and it’s a mission that we live and breathe by in our values at The Mustard Seed. Yes, there is a lot of sacrifice, long hours and sometimes frustrations and heartaches that come with the job when seeing people come in with an overdose or are feeling suicidal.

“The staff has been miraculous. Their hearts are overflowing with a desire to work collaboratively together and support one another. When you are doing mission-focused work, it really comes down to how is this making a difference. I get to go home to a bed that is warm, but there are people out there that don’t have that luxury or accessibility. Our staff are focused more than ever on going the distance.”

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