By Stacy Middlemiss, Shelter Manager, Warmland House
It’s been 34 days since I touched my daughter, 34 days since I’ve felt her skin on mine. If you’re a mother you’ll understand the absolute torture of having to deny the only person who has heard your heart beat from the inside, the snuggles that they want, need, and crave during our distanced visits. At the same time, I’m so unbelievably proud of her as her five-year-old self knows me well enough to understand the importance of mommy’s work. I am also very grateful to have parents that are willing and able to take on the responsibility of caring for my child.
I’m sure it’s difficult for some people to understand how a mother could make the choice to work over being with their child, though we don’t often ask this when fathers work away. I accept that not everyone will understand this, and that is ok with me. I know that my daughter is safe and loved with my parents and that this too shall pass and we will appreciate one another twice as much when we can be together.
I also know that, without any uncertainty, I was put on this earth to do the work I do. Every single day is different for me. Some days I am creating behavioural plans to support people to be able to access our services in a way that works for everyone involved. Some days I am tasked with making the call as to whether or not to just clean and bandage someone up or call for an ambulance knowing that our clients aren’t always met with the most compassion or deciding if someone requires a “break in service” for their actions on site and how that might affect them in the short or long term.
Even amongst this pandemic I risk my life to breathe air into people’s lungs, wipe away their blood, clean up their feces and vomit. I sit with people and let them cry and/or yell, I find them clothes and help them shower when they’ve soiled themselves. At the end of every single day I am thankful for the opportunities that each day brought me, I love my job and the people I serve…every single one of them!
It’s easy to only see or get wrapped up in the negative aspects of my line of work, especially if you’re looking in from a distance. What you don’t see is the genuine care and compassion my clients have for me – they notice when I am showing signs of stress, when I change my hair or get new articles of clothing, they complement me often on the work I’m doing and recognize when I have to make hard decisions and they are the first to tell me when something isn’t working for them. There’s no doubt about it, I work closely with some of the most forgotten, criminalized, un-medicated mentally unstable, potentially dangerous people that walk our streets and while I am always aware of my surroundings, I feel safe and protected at all times.
Let’s move ahead to our current situation where we have had to reduce the services we provide at the Shelter as a way to follow the guidelines put forth by our government and, if we’re being honest, keep my staff working and safe. Over the past 35 days, we have only been able to sleep 30 people per night at the Shelter and there are well over 150 homeless people in this community.
We are still providing services during the day (showers, bathrooms, etc.) just for a reduced numbers. Essentially, we have been a gathering place for people to spend their days, allowing people to just sit and be who they are without judgment – but now we’ve had to force people out into the world to spend their days on benches and sidewalks only to be moved along with no place to belong.
I spend a lot of time mentally taking a tally of my clients, asking around if I haven’t seen or heard from someone and that is getting more and more difficult as everyone is scattered around town. We are serving dinner on the street each night at 5pm because we know that our clients need to eat but it also gives me a chance to check in and see people, find out how they’re doing, let them know that as a community we are working diligently to meet their needs through this time and that they have not been dismissed or forgotten.
The truth is, the clients are scared, anxious and many of them are physically unable to comprehend what is happening in the world right now. People are feeling deserted, abandoned and alone and my heart goes out to them as time ticks by while we try to figure out a plan for them through this pandemic.
Being a manager of an essential service that runs 24 hours a day 365 days a year is difficult at the best of times. The decision to close the gates during the day was not an easy one to make. I’ve lost 9, soon to be 10 staff members in the past 35 days and the future is uncertain. I feel the anxiety of my staff wondering if they are safe and if they are putting their own families at risk by being here – and I don’t blame them.
Many of my staff don’t have extensive training in this line of work but they do have heart, compassion and dedication and no amount of training can provide those skills. I am extremely grateful for my staff and am proud to see how they have stepped up through all of this, not just by showing up for work but my supporting our clients through it as well. Each person on my team brings something special to Warmland House and together we make this place great.
Right now, people are making noise each night at 7pm for “healthcare workers” and rightfully so! I think that a lot of my staff probably don’t feel that they fit into that category. As a nurse who has worked in facilities, I can tell you that the work we do here at Warmland Shelter is just as important and we do it with a higher ratio of clients to staff, we don’t have security, we have less PPE available to us, and our clients are all coming and going around the building, some of whom are psychotic and un-medicated.
So, I ask that you take the time to consider not only the Shelter staff but all of the essential service workers at Canadian Mental Health Association – Cowichan Valley Branch and beyond as we move through the coming days, weeks, and months – because they are all heroes.