By Nina Badwal – June 2021 –
Food insecurity, the opioid crisis and the well-being of 2SLGBTQ adults. These were the key topics discussed during the second instalment of the annual Spring Gathering event which was held virtually via Zoom this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Spring Gathering is a community conversation that takes place in St. James Town to gather feedback from residents about programs and services offered to them by Health Access St. James Town (HASJT) and the St. James Town Service Providers Network (SJTSPN), the co-hosts of this function.
About 40 people including residents and members from the SJTSPN took part in the event on May 27th. After a short video on Indigenous peoples and land acknowledgement, participants were introduced to the mental health counsellor on the panel, from Sherbourne Health – should they wish to speak with her directly. They were also informed about the access to health and social services at The Corner.
The agenda then proceeded with presentations from service provider members with an emphasis on the mental health of residents during the pandemic. After each lecture, participants were put in different breakout rooms, hosted by a facilitator, to discuss their thoughts and solutions on the topics presented.
First up, Sath Arulvarathan, Director at The New Common, presented slides and explanations, and spoke about the impact of food insecurity in the St. James Town neighbourhood. He also talked about the community’s response to the food shortage through various initiatives, and where people can access free meals.
Food insecurity as defined by Toronto Public Health is “the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints,” and it is caused by poverty. In his demonstration, Arulvarathan revealed an alarming statistic by the agency which states, “Almost 1 in 5 households in Toronto are food insecure.” Arulvarathan says that number is higher in St. James Town. For people relying on social assistance programs, he added, “There isn’t a lot left after you’ve paid for the basic needs. So the inclination then is to buy food that’s not as good for us in bulk, due to lack of income… and the pandemic exacerbated the issue.”
Next on the agenda, Robb Johannes from Fred Victor took on the opioid crisis and overdose prevention. The Health Promotion Specialist started his presentation with a sobering story of a former colleague with whom he had lost touch. Ten plus years later when Johannes looked him up, he found a memorial page dedicated to his friend and found out that Dave had died following an overdose of opioids. Loneliness during the holidays lead to a relapse, which Johannes says, contributed to his death.
“In light of the pandemic, I think of how many Daves are out there right now, in light of how many overdoses have increased because we’re all now out there in isolation; we’re all alone in our homes experiencing withdrawal from the things that keep us connected.” Johannes says studies that have looked at addiction point out that, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s human connection.”
He touched on how pandemics work as systemic disruptors which amplify existing socio-economic inequities. COVID-19 is not an isolated incident, Johannes argues, because it falls in the same category as 911 and Hurricane Katrina – which were systemic disruptors. These disruptors increase the struggles of marginalized communities. This relates to the opioid crisis because, “We’re not prepared, we haven’t been dealing with the influx of opioid overdoses,” which have significantly gone up during the pandemic. Johannes says, in Toronto, 30 to 40 people die each month of an opioid overdose – double the rate before the pandemic started.