Surviving the season of loneliness — Covenant House in Toronto reaches out to youth

Christmas is a challenging time of year for many at-risk youth who must deal with loneliness. (Photo by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register - CNN)

By Wendy-Ann Clarke, The Catholic Register

Already vulnerable and alone, many homeless and at risk youth are finding themselves dealing with more than the coronavirus and its restrictions this Christmas.

To them, loneliness is another pandemic.

For the staff at Toronto’s Covenant House, helping young people to cope with these feelings at Christmas is nothing new. Working with homeless and runaway kids often in crisis and abandoned or estranged from family, Maria Ricardo says COVID-19 has only further compounded the difficulties of the season.

“It has become very challenging for our young people who don’t have a sense of direction, a sense of purpose to get out of bed in the morning,” said Ricardo, Covenant House mental health and substance use counsellor.

“We have a lot of young people with increased anxiety, increased depression and increased substance use because the thing about isolation is it really mimics the trauma that you experienced when you were at home or on your own. I have a lot of young people saying the memories are flooding back of how alone they felt in life.”

As Canada’s largest agency serving youth who are homeless, trafficked or at risk, Covenant House’s team of counsellors, youth workers, transition and community workers offer a wide range of services to more than 300 young people daily. With often delicate family relationships, many of the youth are not able to live with relatives and due to COVID-19 are not welcome home this Christmas because of concerns over possible virus transmission from their communal living environment.

For the youth living at Covenant House, the celebration will go on as they come together for a socially distanced Christmas dinner. It’s the youth living independently that pose the biggest concern this holiday season for Ricardo.

“We have to be super mindful of our young people who are on their own in the community,” said Ricardo. “That means that our staff work extra hard at making sure they’re texting, calling, e-mailing to make sure that they have contact with our young people consistently over the holidays so that they know they’re not alone.”

Since COVID-19 hit, the organization has had to be diligent and creative in meeting the needs of clients who range in age roughly from 16 to 24 years, and are among some of the most vulnerable in society.

Ricardo says face-to-face interaction is part of the healing process and how staff communicates to them they are valued. With the move to virtual services and limited in-person interaction with masks and social distancing, staff have had to find the delicate balance between maintaining safety and meeting the emotional and psychological needs of clients.

“We know that the relationship is where trauma originates and the relationship is what accesses healing for people,” said Ricardo. “With everything moving towards virtual services, this became a very challenging thing because we know that these young people have been deprived of good, healthy relationships and human contact in many circumstances.”

It’s very hard to communicate love and respect, wellness and positive regard virtually.

“So as a whole, Covenant House has had to do a lot of work on how we communicate these things. We’ve had to decide what places we absolutely have to go virtual and what can we do to keep as much human contact as possible.”

Covenant House has maintained core programming and face-to face therapy sessions for its most vulnerable clients while allowing for more virtual options for young people who may be more progressive in their recovery from trauma.

Roughly 80 per cent of Ricardo’s case load has continued in-person with masks, social distancing and sanitation measures in place.

Several other staff have had most of their cases transferred to the virtual space. Beyond the move to online counselling sessions, Ricardo says their young people are also suffering from losing the people, places and things that make them feel connected such as being able to go to school and interacting with classmates.

This has been a sacrificial year for staff and that will continue throughout the holidays as many with vulnerable family members may not be able to see them due to the volume of people they are interacting with through work.

“A lot of people and a lot of staff have elderly parents or people with compromised immune systems,” said Ricardo. “We’ve had to put aspects of our life on hold as well for the betterment of our young people. We do that because we know that we are coming from a place of privilege and for our young people, they don’t even have that option with the fragile relationships that they have.”