Mind the Gap : Frontline Workers are Creating Connections in a Time of Social Distancing

As the global pandemic closes in on one year, safety measures like social distancing have fundamentally changed the way people connect with each other every day.


But 24/7 Crisis Diversion Team members are finding new ways to bridge the six-foot chasm that separates them from their clients.


The 24/7 Crisis Diversion initiative dispatches crisis diversion teams around the clock, 365 days a year. They respond to people who are in distress and vulnerable on the streets of Edmonton.


Olha is a frontline worker who spends her average day on a 12-hour shift with Hope Mission’s team. She says the complexities of offering services during a global pandemic has affected the way the work is done.


“We’re getting a lot of covid calls – transporting covid-symptomatic clients, close contacts or positive cases who need to isolate.


There are some challenges that come with the new territory, such as wearing PPE and face shields, social distancing and other safety-oriented techniques that create barriers to communicating.


“Not to being able to hug people, staying two metres away, it’s hard,” said Olha.


“But we’re trying to be creative.”


Team members take on the higher risk of getting sick, in order to do this essential work. Olha and some of her colleagues were off the job for weeks, recovering from covid, but were eager to get back into the community as soon as possible.


“It’s just good to be back,” she says.


She and her teammates are up to the task of finding new ways to create human connections in spite of the difficulties presented by the always-evolving practices that aim to keep clients and frontline workers safe.


“There’s a real focus on safety, which is great, but it sometimes shifts the focus away from the human connection and relationship,” she said.


Every day brings its own unique challenges, as the needs on the ground shift every minute of every hour.


We have little average, lots of variety,” Olha says laughing. “That’s the only constant.”


“Say, for example, we have a call for someone sleeping in the snow,” she explains. “We go and try to help and may be get them to a shelter.”


“In the meantime, we’re getting a call to move a symptomatic client from the convention centre shelter to an isolation space. While we’re transporting them, we might get a call about moving someone from Hope Mission to an addiction recovery program.


Motion seems to be the only stable facet of the day, as teams follow the ever-changing situation on the ground, hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute.


“We don’t get bored for sure.


The dedication to flexibility and problem-solving is recognized and valued by the all the members of the partnership making this initiative happen.


“On top of all these challenges, they’re spending a ton of time sanitizing the vehicles. Covid calls are taking almost an hour because of sanitizing after,” said Claire MacDonald, Program Coordinator for 24/7 Crisis Diversion at REACH Edmonton.


“This makes the calls longer and communication more difficult Sometimes the driver has to pull over to take calls and do dispatches,” says Claire. “We truly appreciate the difficulty of the situation, and the way Olha and all our frontline workers are rising to meet every challenge head-on. Their dedication to the work is nothing short of inspiring.”


Doing this human-focused work leaves a definite mark on the people who choose to do it.


Each client’s story is unique, and every connection is one of many experiences that affect the team members in real ways over time. Over time, Olha’s mental map of the city has come to include moments of connection that happen on street corners in Edmonton every day..


“I end up remembering them, “says Olha.  “Throughout the city I have different streets or avenues or corners that I name after somebody that we had a situation with or they consistently stay there.”


“As I drive around the city I think of that person, and pray for that person, and I think of their life,” she says.


Olha’s mental map of human stories includes a space dedicated to a client she saw regularly and sometimes struggled to connect with.


“I often think of one man who never went to the shelters and he was usually sober and polite and was refusing help,” she recalls. “One day when he was in really bad shape and falling down in the snow in -20. Just being there for him and having him accept help getting him to the hospital and getting help and just loving him in the best way we could.”


“It meant a lot to him, he said, for us to be there for him. These days he’s not there anymore. I don’t even know if he is alive anymore or not. That makes me be even more thankful and glad that on his last encounters with us he was really cared for and valued.


That’s one story out of hundreds and hundreds previous lives we come across. That kind of thing really stays with me” she says.


The experience of being present with someone in need, and connecting with them on a human level, is intense and often difficult. But Olha says it’s a key part of how she chooses to walk through every day, always remembering that every human being is sacred.


“They’re a person. They’re not a monster, they’re not an alien,” she says. “They’re an individual, same as me and you. Coming to learn that is, I think, is very big. I’ve learned, even when somebody is not being their best, to not be afraid of them. I just feel love and compassion.”


Humanizing Edmontonians who are too-often dehumanized in various ways, is a key part of the work the Crisis Diversion Teams are doing on Edmonton’s streets every day.


“It really makes a difference in the work. The experience of being there for people - it’s unforgettable.”


Claire MacDonald,
Program Coordinator
REACH Edmonton

Madeleine Smith,
Co-director Community Initiatives
REACH Edmonton