Charities find creative ways to safely help homeless residents amid pandemic

Physical distancing doesn’t come easily in a busy soup kitchen. Here’s how agencies providing services to some of Ottawa’s most vulnerable residents are adapting
Ric Watson
Chef Ric Watson is the director of food services at The Ottawa Mission, which has switched to meals-to-go for members of the greater community to reduce the number of people inside its facility amid the pandemic. Photo by Mark Holleron
Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the 2020-21 Giving Guide. Read the full publication here.

Before the arrival of the pandemic, soup and shelter kitchens were more than just a place to go for a free hot meal. They also offered up companionship, conversation and compassion for a marginalized segment of society.

Take Thanksgiving, for example. It’s one of the most social holidays of the year. The turkey dinners are normally a big deal at The Ottawa Mission, a nonprofit organization that provides food, shelter, clothing as well as other vital services and programs to the homeless. 

It’s not uncommon to see the mayor and police chief volunteering during the communal feast. Tables are decorated for visitors with pretty tablecloths and flower arrangements “as if they were at their grandmother’s house,” said chef Ric Watson, director of food services for The Ottawa Mission.

But a lot has changed since March, when the rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic. 

The health crisis forced The Ottawa Mission to briefly shut down its community meal service while it came up with a new plan for feeding the homeless during lockdown.

The organization has continued to provide meals to all the men staying in its homeless shelter but has switched to meals-to-go for members of the greater community. Individuals now collect their three meals a day from the building’s loading dock area. 

“There’s no way around it, that’s the thing,” said Watson, who’s sorry to have to see people line up for food. "It's a sad situation, for sure.”

In September, The Ottawa Mission was serving more than 1,600 meals a day, compared to the 1,400 daily meals it was dishing out before the pandemic broke.

Watson said he was shocked by how hungry the men were when the community meal service first resumed.

“I saw people, when they got their bags of food, literally just rip them open.”

Difficult decisions

Over at the Shepherds of Good Hope, the organization faced the same challenge: how to feed the poor and hungry while respecting COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.

The nonprofit organization runs one of the city’s largest homeless shelters, along with supportive housing facilities and day-to-day services, including a soup kitchen.

“We know there are a lot of folks in precarious housing conditions, living in poverty,” said Caroline Cox, the Shepherds’ senior manager of communications and volunteer and community services. “Whatever their source of income, it doesn't stretch all the way, especially with housing being so unaffordable. 

“We know there are a lot of folks who are just struggling in the community and who come to us for a meal.”

Businesses help charities safely deliver meals

Before the pandemic, the Shepherds’ soup kitchen was able to serve more than 700 meals a day, including breakfast, lunch, dinner and an evening drop-in.

“Honestly, it was quite crowded,” said Cox of why the organization had to come up with a new solution for feeding people that adhered to physical distancing rules and indoor gathering restrictions.

They started serving outdoors, where it’s harder for coronavirus to spread. 

As the weather gets cold, however, the Shepherds’ meal service is moving back inside, where it will feed those men and women staying in its shelter. Even then, it will be tricky.

“With physical distancing, it's going to mean multiple meal sittings for different groups throughout the day,” said Cox.

“Unfortunately, it's going to mean we're not going to be able to provide a meal to some of the community clients who are not staying at the shelter.”

In normal circumstances, the Shepherds of Good Hope never turns anyone away.

“Our mandate is to give a meal to anybody who needs it, no questions asked. We’ve had to change that because of the current situation, and that's a hard change for us to make.

“We're very used to stepping up when there's a gap in the community, but we can only do so much, and we do need the whole community to come together to support our most vulnerable.”

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