Brian Prousky, executive director of Jewish Family and Child Service of Greater Toronto (JF&CS), is blunt in assessing what his agency is facing these days: “In my more than 30 years in social services, I’ve never seen anything quite like what we’re going through now.”
Like other social service agencies in Canada and around the world, JF&CS is seeing a “steady escalation of increasingly desperate calls” from people who have lost their jobs or have relied on others who have lost their jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prousky told The CJN in a recent interview.
“These people are frightened, struggling to feed themselves and their children, buy over-the-counter medication, pay the rent,” he said. “We’re seeing a steady increase in calls over the last few weeks, and a steady increase in the level of desperation people are feeling.”
Despite the virus-related spike, JF&CS’s goal is “to keep our programs up and running. We recognize that for many vulnerable people in the community, we are their only safety net during this time. We recognize that abandoning them now when they need us more than ever would be unthinkable.”
Among the agency’s top priorities, Prousky said, is to ensure delivery of services to the one in four Holocaust survivors who live below the poverty threshold in the Toronto area. He credits different streams of funding created by the provincial government and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, one of JF&CS’s major funders, for launching seven key initiatives to address the needs of the most vulnerable.
These include providing groceries to those with immediate needs, expanding Kosher Meals on Wheels, bolstering rent subsidies and allotting an extra $100,000 to help Holocaust survivors living in poverty.
Prousky is also glad to see private donations.
“We had some real generous people in our community step up and help,” he said. “Their acts of generosity and kindness have really allowed us to extend our reach to a growing number of people impacted by the crisis.”
Calls to JF&CS regarding child welfare and protection are not necessarily higher now, because many referrals in that area come from schools, which are closed, explained Talyah Breslin, director of the agency’s child and welfare services.
However, JF&CS is seeing a lot of outreach involving those aged 18 to 21. It has boosted funding to those young people who are no longer in the agency’s “in-care” system and have lost their jobs, Breslin said.
She said JF&CS is trying to balance the potential threat of the virus with keeping children safe. Many meetings with families are being conducted virtually.
In fact, of the agency’s 33 programs, the vast majority are operating remotely.
And though JF&CS has a shortage of personal protective equipment, “a lot of work is going into talking with kids about what to expect if they see someone dressed as a spaceman.”
The bigger concern is time, and children who are out of view.
“We worry that the longer this goes on, the more kids and families will be hidden and in isolation,” Breslin said. “We hope that people in the community are keeping their eyes out, looking out for those individuals, and to call us.
“Our main worry is the kids we’re not hearing about. They don’t have their teachers to go talk to.”
There’s also increased support for foster parents to help pay for indoor activities and groceries, she said.
Monica Auerbach, director of family services at JF&CS, said the agency is noticing a rise in domestic violence, reflecting trends in other parts of the world where large segments of the population are in isolation or quarantine.
She said police in York Region, north of Toronto, recently reported that over a seven-day period, incidents of domestic violence jumped by 25 per cent over the previous week.
“We’re seeing those calls reflected in our intake and in our referrals,” Auerbach said.
Prior to the pandemic, JF&CS was able to work with victims of abuse to help them flee their abusers. Now, “a number of women and children still live with their abusers, and our staff is working hard, keeping in touch with those people and developing safety plans to ensure that women and children stay safe.”
As for Holocaust survivors, especially those who are poor, “you can imagine this (crisis) is triggering a lot of issues for them.”
She said JF&CS’s poverty reduction program also serves “extremely socially isolated” individuals who “are terrified they cannot get the groceries and basics they need. It’s the anxiety from children and families that we’re dealing with every day. It’s everywhere.”
Prousky lauds the community at large for stepping up to the plate. At last count, more than 1,800 individuals had volunteered for UJA Federation’s COVID-19 relief campaign, which has raised $500,000 to date.
In the latest news, UJA is providing a grant of $100,000 for Reena to purchase kosher food for its clients, and $50,000 to Kayla’s Children’s Centre to pay for personal support workers for the most vulnerable students who are now at home due to social isolation.
“I have seen the best of our community in this crisis, said Prousky. “People have really come together. There’s been a collective sense of compassion, empathy and caring that has been incredibly heartwarming and reaffirming.”