‘I’m just trying to keep people alive’: Study examines burnout among people who work with the homeless.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Toronto, Lorraine Lam’s life as a social worker supporting Toronto’s homeless population felt increasingly lonely and distant.

He struggled to find and connect with his clients due to social distancing measures. Some were difficult to locate because they did not have telephones. Others were difficult to find during the winter, as most public spaces were closed. Her inability to help, especially as the colder months approached, left her tired and wary.

As people took refuge at home during the confinement, Lam became hyper-aware not only of the lack of resources and the stark inequalities faced by his clients, but also of how different his day-to-day life was from those who worked from home. away from the front of the pandemic. lines.

“I’ve been working hard, honestly trying to keep people alive, trying to figure out how we can meet people’s basic needs,” he said. This, at a time when the number of camps in Toronto grew dramatically due to fear of the virus and limited shelter options. “I have taken lifeless people out of the tents because they have died there.”

Twenty months after the pandemic, Lam and other industry workers say their mental health has suffered as they continue to worry about the well-being of their customers. While public spaces have since opened up, the number of people on Toronto’s supportive housing waiting list has risen as the city’s affordable housing crisis persists and overdose numbers have worsened exponentially. Toronto saw 521 confirmed opioid overdoses in 2020, 78 percent more than the previous year.

TO new study and policy brief by the Center on Addiction and Mental Health and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, released Tuesday, sheds light on the mental health challenges faced by those who work in the homeless sector, a workforce that is predominantly young and female, with a high number of racialized workers.

The study, led by CAMH researchers Nick Kerman and Sean Kidd, began in November 2020 and surveyed 427 people in Canada who work in homeless services, supportive housing or harm reduction. The results revealed that 60 percent of workers in the sector are experiencing moderate levels of burnout, and four out of five say their mental health has declined during the pandemic.

One in five say they do not have paid sick leave or private insurance, while some do have access to a limited amount of $ 400 a year for mental health benefits that cover professional counseling or therapy. Almost a third of workers said they faced significant financial problems during the pandemic. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016 there were more than 6,000 people employed in the sector nationwide.

“The picture we see painted in this investigation is an industry and staff that are under enormous pressure,” said Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End the Homeless. “The pandemic has really hit the homeless system and the staff that work there.”

For Kerman, the results are a window into the struggles of a significant workforce that is largely overlooked in public discourse on essential workers during the pandemic, and that has faced challenges even before COVID-19 due to the lack of funds and resources.

“This is a group of workers who are working with traumatized people,” Kerman said. “Unfortunately, despite this, we don’t have a lot of research and evidence on this workforce and what their needs are.”

Jessica Franciosi, a community mental health counselor in Brampton, said her work at Provincial Housing and Services (SHIP) became difficult early in the pandemic as funding for her agency was suspended, causing her to connect to people with stable housing were almost impossible.

“As a worker, watching your client deteriorate due to something that is out of their control or my control while trying to stay positive and generate hope was very emotionally draining for me,” Franciosi said. He said that some of his clients developed substance addictions, while others lost their entire social support network.

“Sometimes I found myself exhausted,” Franciosi said, adding that she relied heavily on her colleagues for support, took time off, and accessed mental health services through her work. Her agency, she said, has made it a priority to offer wellness support to her employees, which has helped keep her optimistic and better support her clients.

Mary Bartman, director of policy and substance use at the mental health commission, said she hopes lawmakers and the federal cabinet will review lessons learned during the pandemic to improve working conditions for homeless support workers. , which include better wages, mental health support, and timely access. to personal protective equipment, while providing shelter relief to the thousands of Canadians in need.

Both Lam and Franciosi said that their mental health and well-being depend on whether their clients have adequate access to housing and support, especially as another winter approaches, which brings many challenges for those who do not have a safe place to sleep while they visit. Cities like Toronto are dealing with a shortage of shelter beds.

“What I really need is for the circumstances and realities around me to change,” Lam said. “What would improve my mental health is if I stop having to resurrect people, if I did not carry all this pain of the people I lost.”


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