As 2020 ended, we began strategizing and formalizing our focuses on health and wellness and increased access to support networks and resources. We knew that, despite our efforts during the pandemic, our residents still struggled, decompensated and backslid in their efforts toward long-term stability.
As a result, we recruited three new resident counselor facilitators who work on a part-time basis, each with very specific training and experience in the areas we want to focus on relating to health and wellness.
One resident counselor has specialized training in substance abuse recovery support. Having this person as a member of our staff gives residents access to someone who can reinforce the treatment they receive at their substance abuse recovery programs.This counselor can also encourage people to go to recovery and/or assist them when they are struggling with maintaining their sobriety and can also identify when additional outside interventions may be necessary.
One resident counselor has specialized training and experience in teaching life skills to populations like the one we serve. They are able to successfully build the kinds of relationships required to successfully instruct a population that often has challenges with learning new skills such as interpersonal skills,budgeting and time management.
One resident counselor has specialized training and experience in mental health counseling support. They offer first-line support in emergencies, can help stabilize residents in crisis until additional help arrives, and they can monitor and screen residents and can even make recommendations accordingly about what types of mental health services would be advisable. These three part-time counselors are our four full-time case managers and our two part-time case managers who also continue to provide direct services to residents and meet with them at least twice a month. The addition of resident counselor facilitators, who can address the majority of challenges our residents face, is proving to be a tremendous asset to the organization.
COVID-19 escalated many of the challenges our residents face. There was an increased focus on accessing support networks and resources. We looked closely at addressing food insecurity and Wi-Fi access. Food insecurity immediately became an issue for our residents when COVID happened for several reasons.
When the pandemic struck, food insecurity immediately became an issue for our residents for several reasons. Initially, WHC was purchasing food and providing residents with a virtual pantry of shelf-stable staples. While this was a good short-term idea, it wasn’t a long-term solution. Residents’ concerns about food also decreased their capacity to address other concerns in their lives. Food was scarce in many stores as much of the general public engaged in bulk purchasing, and other factors began coming into play to make food insecurity more challenging for our residents.
Starting in April 2020, WHC partnered with J.C. Faulk from Bmore Community Foods, a project spearheaded by Faulk’s non-profit that “rescues” food from restaurants, retail outlets, farms, etc., and distributes it for free to those in need. Faulk’s work with food insecurity has been especially important during this time, and through this partnership, we have been able to provide our residents with 20-25 pound boxes of fresh produce, food staples, frozen food items, and meat twice a month. While helping our residents stretch their food budgets, we’ve also given them the opportunity to try new foods, depending on the produce in the boxes they receive. To help with food distribution, The Junior League of Baltimore has been an essential partner; they coordinate and execute the delivery of these boxes to our residents.
Throughout 2020, WHC became especially aware of how the absence of access to high-speed Internet impacted our residents’ lives. Not having access to the Internet during COVID has meant additional challenges with accessing health care via telemedicine once in-person visits to doctors were decreased. When human services organizations stopped seeing clients in person and moved their services online, lack of access to high-speed internet meant applying for benefits like the SNAP program and unemployment benefits became increasingly more difficult. Without high-speed internet, online learning for children in our program also proved problematic. Even our residents who had smartphones often did not have data plans large enough to navigate the internet for any extended period of time.
The reliance on the internet that has increased since the pandemic began is not going to decrease when COVID is less of a threat. This has become the “new normal.” Internet access has ceased to be an unnecessary luxury, and basic knowledge of how to operate technology is not something primarily for non-low-income individuals and families, especially when it comes to finding work. Digital equity is an important issue for us to tackle as a human services organization. Thanks to a partnership with Baltimore City Schools and our case managers’ diligent work, we have been able to provide all our students with electronic devices.
The food support we offer residents has freed up money that has allowed us to help people enroll in the subsidized internet connectivity program that Xfinity offers at a monthly cost of $9.95 for residents not living in SRO units. Additionally, thanks to grants from Abell Foundation and France-Merrick Foundation, we have wired our four SRO buildings for high-speed internet access, and we have been awarded funding to purchase devices for our residents to use. Once we purchase these devices, we will roll out our “Loan or Own” program to residents who have been with us for at least a year with the recommendation of their case managers.
Though 2020 was a trying year, it brought about new ways and opportunities to help our residents as they work towards their future. We look forward to seeing the benefits of these new resources for years to come.