(May 7, 2020) We hear a lot these days about the needs of front line charities, the crisis they’re facing and their precarious future. Today we hear directly from a leader on those front lines in this feature interview with Carol Latchford, the executive director of Red Door Shelter. You’ll get an insider look as she deftly pivots her organization to meet the needs of her staff and the 156 men, women and children she’s responsible for. Latchford oversees the care of 106 people in a homeless shelter, and 50 women in a 50-bed violence against women’s shelter, in the downtown core of Canada’s largest urban centre. Latchford has worked in a leadership position in women’s shelters for more than three decades. The Red Door homeless shelter is funded and overseen by the Shelter Support & Housing Administration Division of the City of Toronto. The violence against women (VAW) shelter is funded and overseen by the Ministry of Community & Social Services (MCSS) of the Province of Ontario. In this interview with editor in chief Gail Picco, Latchford talks about what life has been like at the Red Door since the global pandemic was declared.
Gail Picco: How are you, Carol?
Carol Latchford: Every day is an adventure.
Gail Picco: How so?
Carol Latchford: Well, as you know, Red Door is two shelters. We have a 106-bed shelter for homeless people and a 50-bed VAW shelter for women fleeing intimate partner violence. For now, we have had to expand the VAW program into the hotel sector to maintain social distancing, and most of that is pregnant women and women with new babies. And we’re had to redeploy all staff. Who’s available to work and who’s not? Whose jobs are no longer there? We’re no longer doing outreach, for example, so those staff have been deployed elsewhere. We still have our foodbank going for ex-residents. Some ex-residents are more hesitant to come, but we’re still getting our deliveries from Second Harvest. And MLSE turned Scotiabank Arena into a giant kitchen, and they delivered meals to us. Someone else sponsored a pizza dinner for every one in both shelters.
Our Red Door community has been really helping. Our donors are showing such intelligence. One supporter, understanding the children would be having a hard time being cooped up, dropped off games for them.
Gail Picco: How about fundraising? How’s your fundraising doing?
Carol Latchford: Well, our donations went up in April. It was the highest spike we’ve ever experienced in the month of April. Our fundraising coordination staff was very happy. It seems as though people have a real compassion for people who are homeless right now, and they really feel empathy for what it’s like not to have a roof over your head.
Gail Picco: How are you managing the physical distancing?
Carol Latchford: The VAW shelter is operating at half capacity. We have shared rooms in the VAW shelters, so we’ve had to send half of those women with their children to hotels. Clients are not coming out of their rooms that much. We have staggered mealtimes and people sign up for their laundry days. And they’ve got their two hours a day to go out for a walk.
Before someone comes into the shelter, they spend 14 days of self-isolation, we call it self-monitoring, in a hotel."
We have negotiated arrangements with these hotels, which would otherwise be empty. We have three shifts of staff at the hotels offering counselling and all the good stuff. They are not wearing PPE now.
Gail Picco: Have you had any cases of COVID-19?
Carol Latchford: We had one COVID case in about the third week of March. As soon as it was suspected, we took the woman to the COVID testing site where they provide a room and meals. When the test was positive, she was transferred to the COVID treatment site in Scarborough, which has full medical staff for treatment. There are plans to open a new COVID site downtown.
Red Door is unique. The homeless aspect of our work means we liaise with the municipal services and the VAW part of our mandate means we work with the provincial government. So, we get access to the public health information for the city perspective and the provincial perspective. On the medical front, we work with South Riverdale Community Health Service, who provide us with information we need to know about infection, how to prevent it and the necessary protocols.
Gail Picco: We’ve been watching the news and hearing the statistics about the increase in intimate partner violence. In one shelter, in London Ontario, they saw a 300% increase in women needing services. Have you experienced that?
Carol Latchford: We are doing all our intake centrally from the Assaulted Women’s Helpline and their crisis calls are up 400%. Because of social distancing, many shelters bed counts went down. Usually when women are talking to the Assaulted Women’s Helpline, there is time for developing what’s called a ‘safety plan’, a process of going through with women what they need to take with them in terms of official documents, about scheduling a time to leave when their partner is out or even scheduling a time when a shelter will send a cab to pick the woman up. None of that is happening now.
Women are calling, saying that they are riding around on the TTC with nowhere to go. There’s a much greater sense of urgency."
Gail Picco: I was talking to a spokesperson for the Toronto Police Services yesterday who told me that calls around intimate partner violence haven’t spiked and supplied stats that showed they were hovering around 350 incidents a week. But she did say that I should really talk to the community services because that would give me more of a sense of what was happening. What do you think about that?
Carol Latchford: With intimate partner violence, there’s always been a problem with the police. Nowadays when the police get involved, and with the charging policy, if the guy hits the woman and she reacts by hitting back, they’ll charge both of them. Somehow, people know this and don’t call. And we have a whole new generation of police officers who think, if it’s good enough for the guy, it’s good enough for the women, so that’s that.
Gail Picco: Have you had to get all of your clients tested?
Carol Latchford: No. We didn’t move to get everyone tested. Even though we know people can be asymptomatic, there is also a stigmatization that happens. You know staff come in and they’re fearful of people having COVID. I tell them you’re the ones who are in and out of the shelter. No one is tracking what you’re doing. The clients basically don’t go anywhere. If we had an outbreak then, of course, we’d have everyone tested. One of the refugee centres had an outbreak, but if you don’t have that, there’s no reason to do it. You have to take the preventative measures. We’ve put up screening. Staff aren’t wearing PPE. They’re not doffing and donning the full gear with face screens and all that, but we do have PPE if needed and people are wearing gloves. If we had an outbreak the South Riverdale Health Centre would take over.
Gail Picco: As I’ve been watching the tragedy unfold in long term care facilities, I’ve thought about you here, running two shelters for more than 150 people and wondering how you’re keeping everyone safe. How are you doing that?
Carol Latchford: The standard of care in long term care facilities is nowhere near the standard of care we have for people in shelters. I don’t know how many patients a personal support worker has to look after in a long term care centre, but it’s a lot and it’s a reason why people hire their own PSW’s to look after their parents. And we have cleaners here from 8 am to 8 pm who are constantly cleaning, especially the heavily used areas like doorknobs and elevator buttons.
Gail Picco: You have to work closely with the municipal officials as well as with the province. Do you have confidence in the way things are being handled?
Carol Latchford: In terms of the city, we work with Shelter, Support & Housing Administration Division, which, ordinarily, is staffed in a pretty lean way. They have 7,000 beds to take care of citywide and have had some staff redeployment to fill the gap, and people have been going full steam ahead the whole time. It’s hard, especially when you’re hearing it’s not enough or it’s not working. I think some advocates have been pretty harsh but, then again, we have people going into hotels which may be due to the advocacy, so maybe there’s a push needed. But it’s hard.
The city has tried to be as nimble as they can. They aren’t typically used to working quickly. The city is different from the province. They actually do the work. They find the beds and they give you a portion, so they might come to you saying we’ve got 700 beds in hotels and you can have 300 of them. It’s up to us to staff them, but they do the work of finding the beds. In terms of the province and the VAW work, they are dealing with shelters, which each have their own independent boards of directors. The province is dealing with autonomous organizations. So, they will tell us we have funding for beds, but you have to go out and find those beds yourself, to negotiate with the hotels yourself. In the meantime, the city has had provided some rapid re-housing. The units came from somewhere, so our clients snapped those up.
Gail Picco: What are you thinking about as you look to the future?
Carol Latchford: I’m worried about moving into flu season and maintaining safety for the clients and the staff. What’s going to happen when the pandemic is declared over. I think we’re moving to a time when there’s going to be more than the coronavirus.
How are we going to provide service in this new reality? Half of me wonders how we are going to function differently? What is that going to look like? SARS really prepared us for this pandemic, but after this one, I think the next one will happen more quickly.
The way we do business is going to have to change. If it hasn’t been made clear enough already, people need to have homes. I worry about people who are in isolation, who have homes, but are alone. I see that a lot in our workforce. The level of fear was just through the roof and not all of it related to COVID, but because there’s already a level of depression and anxiety, it comes out. And in social services, people feel comfortable about sharing their feelings in the workplace.
Gail Picco: What kind of staff complement do you have now? They last time I talked to you it was 40%.
Carol Latchford: It’s higher now. We’re at about 60%. And people are really looking forward to their $4 an hour shift premium that the provincial government announced a couple of weeks ago. Plus, the $250 for working more than 100 hours a month. But the province hasn’t quite got the details of that worked out yet. This whole thing has been about pivoting for us. Taking the situation and moving in the direction we need to go. We still don’t know what’s going to happen with fundraising. April was a great surprise, but for the people who give at the end of the year, I just don’t know. There is a million people out of work. And it’s going to take a while for them to pick up everything in their own lives.
Gail Picco: It’s interesting you should bring that up. We are looking at the increasingly vocal chorus of people saying charitable foundations need to increase their pay out from 3.5% to 5% or even 10% to help charities through this crisis.
Carol Latchford: I don’t want to talk about my brothers and sisters in charity, but my message is this: ‘get up off the money and build something. How much money do you need to sit on? It’s too much. Get a grip. That money has been donated for a function. It doesn’t seem fair. Get up off of it and get something going.’