The Salvation Army opened its brand new centre in a pandemic. The timing couldn't be better
New faces, more families showing up in need of emergency food aid
In the middle of a pandemic and a staggering economic downturn, the Salvation Army Ches Penney Centre of Hope had its grand opening this week in downtown St. John's.
"Our programs and services are needed now more than ever," said Salvation Army Maj. Rene Loveless.
"We are opening at a very difficult time in the community, in the world with COVID-19."
For more than a century, the Salvation Army has operated on Springdale Street helping some of the city's most marginalized and vulnerable. Its new multimillion-dollar centre brings the Army's abilities to a whole new level.
The range of services and essential care being provided at the centre is vast. It includes 20 permanent supportive housing units, on-site health-care services, mental health and addictions services, and educational and social programming, to name some of what's offered.
There's also an expanded food bank with refrigerators and freezers, and a kitchen and dining area that serves up hundreds of hot meals every week.
Coming into the pandemic, St. John's already had rates of food insecurity that were among the highest in the country.
Demand for meals has escalated
Months later, here at the Centre of Hope, recent trend lines described by staff are alarming.
These are folks who a year ago they would never have pictured themselves coming to a food bank, but because of COVID.… They now find themselves here.- Tony Brushett
A year ago, their community food lines would see up to 100 people a week. Now that number is close to 600.
In recent months, demand at the food bank has increased almost 100 per cent.
Some are people who were infrequent visitors are now coming more often. Staff say others are new faces.
"We're seeing up towards 150 families a week coming for the food bank," said the centre's executive director, Tony Brushett.
"These are folks who a year ago they would never have pictured themselves coming to a food bank, but because of COVID and a lot of the fallout from it, they now find themselves here," he said.
WATCH | Come inside the Salvation Army's new facility in downtown St. John's:
Brushett described how families are now showing up in cars — something not typical for the population the staff typically help — and take away meals so they can save a few dollars to help make ends meet.
"Those who are willing to talk, they're suffering," said Brushett. "It's heartbreaking."
He said many of these people were on the lower end of the middle class a year ago and thought they were doing well before they hit a bump in the road.
Beacon of hope
"This centre will be like a beacon in the community to let people know that whenever and wherever they need us we are here for them. When it comes to people needing food, we're here." said Loveless.
Both Loveless and Brushett expect the current situation will last far into next year.
Josh Smee, the chief executive officer of Food First NL, has the same expectation.
"We really do anticipate this will continue through the winter and perhaps get worse when tax time comes around," Smee said in an interview with CBC News.
Smee pointed out it's anticipated there will be tax impacts on emergency benefits that will hit people come spring.
Looking at the usage numbers that the Salvation Army is reporting, Smee said it's similar to what he and colleagues are hearing from other food banks in the metro region: there's been a drastic increase in demand.
Supports needed into next summer
Smee said it's crucial that emergency supports are continued.
"I think supplemental support beyond what's normally available is critical right now, for the next six or seven months at least," he said.
On top of those supports, Smee said, there also needs to be a larger conversation around what the social support system needs to look like so that fewer people are put in this situation when their employment becomes at risk.
- A previous version of this story referred to the new building as the Salvation Army's headquarters. The Army's headquarters are in the Village Mall in St. John'sDec 07, 2020 3:18 PM NT