Working on the frontline: Finding beauty in a time of coronavirus

By Racheal Walser

There is a tree outside of my new workplace. There are a dozen other sticks and twigs that did not come from that tree but were put there by a client. It’s a little quirky looking, this bunch of mismatched twigs and branches, tied to the tree with a rope, or cable, or twine. Why?

“Because everyone deserves to have a home.”  He said.

The “everyone deserves a home” tree outside of Racheal’s window

There are over 400 folks in our community without a home, and this 40-year-old man has lived on the streets for three and a half years.

You might know him, you might not – but you probably know someone like him.

Someone who has a hard time getting going in the morning, someone who feels safe depending on who he’s with, someone who finds solace by being submersed in music, or movement, or creation, and sometimes destruction.

I see him every day when I come to work at the A. R. Kauffman YMCA. It is temporarily rented out by the Region of Waterloo to provide safe shelter to 60 men who, without this space, would be on the streets.

This isn’t your traditional workplace. With the YW as the philosophical lead, we offer a person-centred, harm reduction environment focused on building relationships for some of the hardest to shelter folks in our region. We have computers, guitars, drums, food (so much food) and a makeshift movie theatre. We offer connections to housing and medical support. And most importantly, we offer a human connection.

But in order to make this program work, myself and two other YW staff work alongside 19 Region of Waterloo staff members who were offered a choice of “lay off, or work in the emergency shelter” and bravely chose shelter.

And these dental assistants/file clerks/welcome centre/committee staff came just in time to bear witness to what was, in my opinion, one of the roughest weeks we’ve experienced this year.

Because of the current pandemic, the drug supply is dicier than ever. Opiates are being mixed with benzos, and it is costing people more and more to not get sick. Overdose rates here and in other major cities skyrocketed, but thanks to the Sanguen Health Centre for keeping us supplied with Naloxone and the quick thinking of our team, our shelter didn’t lose anyone.

Instead, we gained an illuminating insight. We had open conversations about use, helped connect folks to their families and their doctors. We learned together, what it is like to see the good with the bad with the ugly but still have room to appreciate the beautiful.

So here, where the “everyone deserves a home” tree stands tall, where people are willing to brave new depths and look out for the safety and well-being of each other, we are open – we are connecting, and we are holding out hope that in the most COVID of times, there is always beauty to be found.

Racheal Walser is a YW Temporary Emergency Shelter Coordinator at our 24/7 shelter program housed in the A. R. Kauffman YMCA in Kitchener.


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