June 29, 2020
The financial, physical and mental well-being of LGBTQI2S communities in Canada has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A national survey found that 42% of the LGBTQI2S community reported significant impacts on their mental health amid the crisis, compared with 30% of non-LGBTQI2S people.
On June 23, 2020, we connected with Lucy Gallo, Youth Services and Housing Director of Friends of Ruby, to learn about how LGBTQI2S youth in Toronto have been navigating the past few months, and how their organization has adapted to continue to serve and support these youth.
Tell us about how Friends of Ruby has adapted and reacted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to continue serving and supporting LGBTQI2S youth.
We closed our drop-in on a Friday and, on the Monday, our counsellors were on the phone connecting with our youth – they jumped right into service and care. Counsellors quickly moved online and have been offering – and are still quite busy doing – phone sessions and video sessions, and we are excited to have just launched a chat counselling program. All staff have now been fully trained to also provide counselling through chat.
We realized there were youth who still live with their families, some of whom they’re not out to, and so they did not have private space to access counselling over the phone. This chat option is now giving them the opportunity to be able to access support, with maybe their parents thinking they’re just texting a friend. This was a feature that we have always wanted to do but never went there because we didn’t have the resources. So, COVID made the push and provided the opportunity to say “we have to react to this right now.” I quickly got the staff trained in two half-days, and they can continue to receive assistance by someone experienced in chat counselling.
As our drop-in program wasn’t available to the youth we serve, one of the themes that we heard in conversations with them at the beginning of the pandemic was the difficulty of accessing food. We responded by providing gift cards, and we were also able to send meals in partnership with an organization, which allowed us to deliver two meals a week to some of our youth.
In adapting to the pandemic, we’ve also tried to provide virtual groups daily to allow youth to continue to have as much access to us as possible. It gave us a chance for people to come together online, connect and share what was going on in their lives. Our Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) discussion group has been a very important one to be running, especially given the amount of racism and what is happening right now in the world. It’s been a difficult time for Black youth. When Toronto started announcing that they were going to card people if they were outdoors when the pandemic first started, and that people could tell on others, a lot of BIPOC youth did not want to come out to the centre; they did not want to experience more racism. We’ve also added some extra check-in times, specifically with our Black staff to support our Black youth.
Some of the other programs we’ve been continuing to run include our art therapy group, virtual drop-ins, gaming and art for change. Also, with the support of the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, two of our counsellors successfully ran a group called Mindfulness-Based Skills for Coping with Stress and Anxiety.
We have begun moving to doing some in-person supports and opportunities for interaction as well. We’ve opened the drop-in again, operating under our own version of “phase two.” We’re providing essentials so people can come in to pick up things like takeaway meals, harm reduction kits, menstrual kits and more. They can now access case management in person – we’ve created a room with enough distance – and plexiglass – and we’ve set up the space in such a way that we could have at least up to six people right now. We’ve also realized that if a youth can’t access their counsellor from home or they don’t want to chat online, they can come to our space and have the privacy to connect with their counsellor virtually.
A lot of the services we’ve been developing or strengthening in the past few months will now also be available post-pandemic. The goal is to offer this new form of modality to all of our youth and also for youth anywhere in Canada who want to access our counselling and/or connect online.
Tell us about any common themes that you’ve observed during the pandemic among the LGBTQI2S youth you serve.
I think a big one is a sense of loneliness. With not being able to access our space, there was a lot of anxiety in the beginning around what does this all mean. How does this affect everyone? Not being able to have our regular sense of community has been difficult, especially when not all youth feel they have the privacy, space or safety at home with their families.
Tell us about some of the lessons you’ve learned while adapting Friends of Ruby to continue serving youth. Have there been any surprises or “aha” moments?
One thing that was interesting, and I’ll just use this as one example of many, is that if someone is experiencing suicidal ideation and you have them in the space, you can do an assessment and hopefully you can de-escalate, as you have them there safe with you. But what I realized was when you’re online and you don’t know where somebody is, how do you provide a sense of safety?
We had to quickly create documents and ask the youth to read them over first and agree to provide information on where they are – such as their address and how to contact them if the line gets disconnected. This protocol also applies in many cases. Even when running our virtual therapeutic groups, how do we know if it was just that someone’s line broke out and that they’re not upset – that they didn’t purposefully drop the call because of something in the group that upset them. So, these are just some of the “aha” moments. When you have someone in person, it’s such a different way of working. These were some of the things that we had to adopt and make available for everyone’s safety.
Tell us about any unique experiences and/or stories of adaptation or resilience from the youth you serve.
There’s been incredible resilience among our youth throughout all this. The folks that we’ve had trouble accessing have been our most transient youth, because they didn’t have contact information for us to reach them when we closed. Because they usually come to see us just by dropping in, being closed made that hard, although a couple of them did come in to say hi and to tell us they’re doing quite well. Obviously, we haven’t been able to see everyone, but the folks we have seen have been demonstrating lots of resilience and coping.
The counsellors have spoken about how a lot of the youth weren’t so sure about doing online counselling. However, one person, for example, has still been working during the pandemic and said they actually liked this option because they can commit to counselling without having to travel to and from the organization. It makes accessing counselling easier for some.
What do you hope to see or do you anticipate in the months ahead?
Right now, we’re planning on opening the drop-in a little bit more, as the city opens more things. The goal is that we will let more people into the space and hopefully foster a greater sense of community again. Each counsellor has a couple of people who are waiting to be seen in person. We’re looking at planning for those counsellors to come in, just to see the specific people who can’t or don’t want to do online counselling. For the BIPOC discussion group, we’re looking at running it virtually, but also in person.
People could come into the space during that time to be part of the group, while others are also connected virtually, so we can meet the needs of people both offline and online. As mentioned earlier, we’re looking to start running another round of Mindfulness-Based Skills for Coping with Stress and Anxiety, hopefully around mid-July. In the next few weeks, staff will continue to talk about the ways that we can expand, and we will continue on with takeaway meals and case management, in person and virtually.
Gaby Novoa, Families in Canada Knowledge Hub, Vanier Institute of the Family
This interview has been edited for length, flow and clarity.