‘Just trying to keep people alive’: A study examines burnout among people who work with the homeless

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Toronto, Lorraine Lamm’s life as an outreach worker supporting Toronto’s homeless population began to feel increasingly lonely and distant.

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She struggled to meet and connect with her customers due to social distancing measures. Some were difficult to track as they did not have a phone. It was difficult to meet others during the winter, as most public places were closed. Her inability to help, especially as the colder months approached, left her exhausted and wary.

As people took refuge at home during the lockdown, Lam became acutely aware of not only the lack of resources and the inequalities facing her clients, but also how much she was dealing with people working from home on a day-to-day basis. Was different, lines away from the front lines of the pandemic.


“I’m working a lot, honestly just trying to keep people alive, just trying to figure out how we can meet people’s basic needs,” she said. This comes at a time when the number of camps in Toronto has increased dramatically due to virus scare and limited shelter options. “I have pulled lifeless people out of the tent because they have died there.”

Twenty months into the pandemic, Lam and other workers in the region say their mental health has suffered as they continue to worry about the well-being of their clients. Ever since the public spaces opened, the number of people on Toronto’s assisted housing waiting list has swelled as the city’s affordable housing crisis ends, and the overdose numbers have worsened rapidly. Toronto confirms 521 opioid overdoses in 202078 percent more than the previous year.

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a New Study and Policy Brief by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, released Tuesday, is highlighting the mental health challenges faced by those working in the homeless sector – a workforce that is predominantly young and female. , with a high number of racial workers.

The study, led by CAMH researchers Nick Kerman and Sean Kidd, began in November 2020 and surveyed 427 people in Canada who work for homeless services, assisted living or harm reduction. The results showed that 60 percent of field workers are experiencing a moderate level of burnout, and four in five say their mental health has declined during the pandemic.

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

“The picture we see in this research is a sector and workforce that is under enormous amounts of stress,” said Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. “The pandemic has really battered the homeless system and the employees who work there.”

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

“This is a group of workers working with the victims,” ​​Kerman said. “Unfortunately, despite this, we don’t have a lot of research and evidence on this workforce and their needs.”

Jessica Franciosi, a community mental health counselor in Brampton, said her job in services and housing (SHIP) in the province had become difficult in the early stages of the pandemic, as her agency was put on hold, making connecting people to stable housing almost impossible. had become impossible.

“As an activist, watching my client deteriorate because of something outside of their or my control, while trying to stay positive and instill hope was very bad on me emotionally,” Francoissi said. She said that some of her clients developed addictions to the substances, while others lost their entire social support network.

“I found myself exhausted at times,” Franciosi said, relying heavily on her colleagues for support, taking time off and accessing mental health services through her work. That said, her agency has made it a priority to provide wellness support to its employees, which has helped it stay optimistic and better support its clients.

Mary Bartman, director of policy and substance abuse at the Mental Health Commission, said she expects policymakers and the federal cabinet to revisit lessons learned during the pandemic to improve working conditions for homeless support workers. – including better pay, mental health support and timely access. for personal protective equipment – ​​as well as providing housing relief for the thousands of Canadians who need it.

Both Lamm and Franciosi said their mental health and well-being depend on whether their clients have adequate access to housing and support, especially as another winter approaches, making it difficult for many has brought challenges for those who do not have a safe place to sleep in the cities. As Toronto is grappling with a shortage of shelter beds.

“I really need to change the circumstances and the realities around me,” Lam said. “What will my mental health improve if I stop reviving people, if I don’t take all this misery of the people I’ve lost.”

Nadine Joseph is a Toronto-based reporter for Star covering mental health. Follow him on Twitter: @nadneyousif_

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