Canadians who work with people facing homelessness and hunger say their colleagues are carrying growing emotional burdens as demand for services soars beyond what their organizations can provide.
In New Brunswick, a shelter network director says his staff are witnessing more desperation, more violence and more people in extreme states of crisis. And in Montreal and Ontario, food bank directors say they’re forced to make gut-wrenching decisions to reduce the amount of food their clients get in an effort to have enough for everyone.
“The fact that the brunt of this massive, systemic social crisis falls on underpaid, over-solicited, under-resourced community organizations and their teams is unconscionable,” said Tasha Lackman, executive director at the Depot Community Food Centre, in Montreal. “It’s a very challenging time to be working in this sector.”
As much of the country struggles with high inflation and a widespread shortage of affordable housing, food banks are reporting record demand. Lackman said her community food centre is on track to distribute nearly 19,000 emergency food baskets in 2023, compared to about 10,000 last year. The centre is able to accommodate the extra need because Lackman and her team have capped the number of people they serve and cut back on the amount of food they put in each basket, she said.
“I’m having to make really hard decisions that impact my team and the community all the time,” Lackman said in an interview. “It feels extremely heavy.”
The number of people coming through the door has jumped from a daily average of about 150 to as many as 280 on busy days, she said. That means volunteers and staff are working harder but seeing that their efforts are having less of an impact.
“They want to be helping people and supporting people, and instead they’re – in some cases – turning people away, having to say, ‘No,”’ Lackman said, adding she worries they’re feeling a sense of moral injury, a sense of distress because they are confronted with a situation that violates their core beliefs.
Krista D’aoust, a director at the Neighbour to Neighbour Centre, in Hamilton, Ont., said she regularly struggles with guilt because the centre cannot meet the needs of her community any more.
“It feels like we could be open eight days a week, if that were possible, and we still wouldn’t be stemming the tide,” D’aoust said in a recent interview. “This hurts, right? This feels really, really, really challenging.”
She said people coming to the centre aren’t just without food any more; they’re also struggling to make rent, or they’re sick because they’re undernourished and unhoused. Like Lackman, she said the housing and hunger in her community has far outgrown the capacities of charities and food banks. The problem needs systemic solutions, she said, beginning with a commitment from those in power to care for vulnerable people.
Warren Maddox, executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters, in New Brunswick, said it’s harder to keep staff spirits up as a rising number of people in the province find themselves with nowhere to sleep.
“The demand for what we’re able to supply is way beyond what we’re able to do,” Maddox said in an interview. “The numbers of homelessness just keep increasing, increasing, increasing, and it’s really disheartening.”
Employees are witnessing rises in desperation, violence and the number of people in extreme states of crisis, he said. They’ve noticed an increase in the number of women using the shelter to flee domestic violence, as well as more clients with addictions. Demand from staff on the organization’s in-house mental health counsellor has increased as a result, he said.
Maddox acknowledged that he, too, was finding the job harder.
“It’s just more of everything and more intense,” he said. “The problem is getting worse, but we’re not seeing the bigger solutions that need to come.”