Your Communities In Action
8 min

COVID-19: Your communities in action, Mar. 25

A running diary of LGBTQ2 folk coping and caring for each other. Today: The 519 community centre in Toronto and North Carolina’s Campus Pride

The 519 community centre in Toronto's LGBTQ2 village.
The 519 community centre in Toronto's LGBTQ2 village. Credit: Courtesy The519.org.
March 25, 2020

Places, Please

Two big theatre events are happening online Wednesday, Mar. 25. Since 2 p.m. EST today, the AFC has been running a marathon 24-hour fundraiser called Places, Please featuring a plethora of stars including LGBTQ2 artists like artistic director of Canadian Stage Brendan Healy, artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Evalyn Parry, theatre artists Dennis Garnhum and Tawiah M’Carthy and actor/singer Thom Allison. At the best of times, the AFC is an organization that provides emergency funds for entertainment professionals in Canada; during the COVID-19, crisis the AFC has gone into overdrive. (Formerly called the Actor’s Fund of Canada, the AFC rebranded four years ago to better reflect its mission to support all professionals working in entertainment.)

“The AFC is the lifeline for Canada’s entertainment industry,” says executive director David Hope. “Our organisation and members of our industry have experienced immense strain in the last week and this fundraiser will go a long way to help in these difficult times.”

The event is ongoing. Comedian Ashley Bottling, playwright Nick Green and producer Michael Rubinoff host. Click here to donate.

Me, Mine, Yours

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, the world’s largest LGBTQ2 theatre, is having a virtual opening night celebration for Jenna Harris’ new play, Mine, which was scheduled to open at the theatre tonight. Director Evalyn Parry, dramaturg Mel Hague and performers Annie Briggs and Vanessa Dunn join Harris in conversation. “Feel free to pop in, ask a question and celebrate these queer women taking up space on stage and online,” states a release from Buddies. The party starts at 7 p.m. EST Mar. 25 on Buddies’ Instagram channel.

The 519, an LGBTQ2 community centre in Toronto, responds to the COVID-19 crisis

Social service organizations around the world are being challenged in new and terrifying ways as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread and societies are being forced into lockdown. The 519, a community centre located in the heart of the LGBTQ2 Village in Toronto, normally offers an incredible range of services and supports to a diverse clientele, many of whom identify as LGBTQ2.

Xtra spoke to Soofia Mahmood, director of strategic communications and executive planning at The 519, about how the centre is faring during this uncertain time and what client needs are emerging as the most critical. The short of it: Vulnerable people are in danger. Reach out to The 519 or to the social service agencies and community centres in your locale. The issues and needs raised here will likely ring true in your community.

What services and supports are still ongoing? 

As a community-focussed organization serving marginalized communities, The 519 is doing everything we can to continue to try and respond to immediate or urgent community needs. Currently, The 519 building is closed to the public, but we are providing the following immediate services and support: takeaway meals, a friendly check-in program and information and referrals.

Talk about food.

The 519 had various food drop-in programs that cannot be continued during the pandemic. However, we have expanded our food program by serving fresh, hot takeaway meals to folks on The 519 patio (in front of Fabarnak Cafe) seven days a week: Monday to Friday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Through this service we are also providing referral support, signing people up for the check-ins and providing other basic personal items while supplies last in addition to meals.

We’re averaging more than a hundred people a day for meals. Community members have been very appreciative, and we’re thankful to have the opportunity to see so many familiar faces and be able to say hello and make sure folks have access to food. We’re definitely seeing an increasing need as the word gets around, with line-ups starting an hour before food service.  There are currently few programs and services (including meal programs) that folks can access, so we anticipate that the need for food is only expected to increase in days and weeks to come.

We’re thankful to local businesses for donating their excess produce and incredibly proud of our leadership team working tirelessly with a limited number of staff teams who are committed to serving our communities especially in this time of need.

What is the friendly check-in?

We’re offering to check-in on the wellbeing of folks and provide them with information and updates by phone or email once a week between Monday and Friday. This is not a counselling service but a means for us to stay connected with and provide support to our communities. Folks can register for the program online or in person. Registration forms will also be available during takeaway meal service.

If I am in need, is there a person I can talk to?

Our teams are compiling and sharing up-to-date resources for communities we serve through our website, social media, as well as Front Desk. Our Front Desk can be contacted between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday to Friday, and between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at (416) 392-6874 or Info@The519.org. Some resources on our website include how the crisis is affecting the refugee system, referral lists for essential services, and ways to cope with anxiety and trauma in nine languages.

What indications of distress are you getting from clients?

There is of course immense stress about not knowing when it will be over. Loneliness and isolation are brought up often, especially for older folks. Many in our communities rely on chosen family for support. Social distancing makes this very difficult, especially for people who don’t have access to a computer or are not comfortable using one or even a phone.

There is also stress expressed by folks around how to keep themselves safe and healthy in the shelters or on the street. We see grave insecurity around accessing basic necessities such as healthcare, food and clothing. We recognize that the City of Toronto has announced additional measures, but there are very few services in the city that homeless folks can access at this time.

What are the special needs of refugees?

With International Refugee Board hearings all postponed, and many services disrupted, a lot of LGBTQ refugees and newcomers are experiencing distress regarding their current social and economic conditions, and their future safety and survival. We serve about 1,500 LGBTQ refugees and newcomers through our programs each year and are in the process of reaching out to our clients to assess their on-ground situations, identify urgent challenges and respond as best as possible in the current circumstances.

How big a concern is isolation and who’s most vulnerable?

Some of the most vulnerable people include folks who rely on regular drop-in programs to be informed, social and healthy. Without access to drop-ins and other associated services, the entire support system for those folks has collapsed. Our programming data and surveys show that social isolation for older adults was the biggest concern of participants before this crisis. Many do not have children, or are estranged from them and from other close relatives, and rely on their communities for support.

What other needs are you hearing about? 

We are hearing from many community members who experience homelessness that access to washrooms is the most pressing issue they face. With libraries and community centres closed, and restaurants and cafes closed or operating as take out only, folks are left without spaces to use the washroom or to freshen up. This is causing a lot of anxiety around the ability to stay healthy. It’s also an issue of human dignity and personal autonomy.

What help does The 519 and your clients need most? How can people help?

Hygiene products including toiletries, sanitizers and warm clothes including gloves and mittens are needed. We ask folks not to come unannounced to The 519 to drop donated items as we are currently closed to the public. Please get in touch with our director operations Lisa Duplessis, at LDuplessis@The519.org, if you have a sizable donation of safe and reliable hygiene products.

Funding support would also help us continue and expand essential services during these trying times. Donations to The 519 can be made online through our website. People can also help by advocating for LGBTQ2 communities needs during these times so those voices are heard and included.

Anything else?

We are monitoring the situation closely and trying to respond. We are also planning to expand our remote outreach to our various program participants in the coming weeks. We are in close coordination with the City of Toronto and other community organizations to figure out a coordinated service support plan. But it is important to note that at this time, we are gravely concerned about sustainability. As a charity with limited resources, limited staff during this time, a rapidly changing situation and so many unknown impacts and factors, we are doing our best to respond to most urgent needs of marginalized communities and will continue to deliver these services for as long as possible. We continue to provide folks with updated information regarding our operations as the situation evolves through our social media channels (@The519) and website; for the latest updates, click here.

Gordon Bowness

This email exchange has been edited.

Give it the ol’ college try

Campus Pride volunteers Charlése Joyce-Ramos and Eduardo Vera.
Campus Pride volunteers Charlése Joyce-Ramos and Eduardo Vera. Credit: Courtesy Campus Pride

College campuses are closing down for what could be the entire duration of the spring semester—a move that has left many LGBTQ2 students and staff wondering where they can find community at a time of great uncertainty.

To address this, Campus Pride, a non-profit organization based in Charlotte, North Carolina, has opted to take some of their programs online. The group has created the “Tips to Laugh, Love and Cope” campaign to not only help individuals find community during the time of social distancing but also to offer a safe space for LGBTQ2 people and those who identify as allies.

“Now more than ever we need to give a sense of hope, a real connection to community and safety,” says Campus Pride executive director Shane Windmeyer. “Our volunteers are engaging via social media and we are creating helpful online tools to support the LGBTQ2 people.”

Volunteers Eduardo Vera and Charlése Joyce-Ramos, both former Campus Pride leaders, came up with the idea to create a virtual space via Instagram Live every Wednesday at 7 p.m. EST and every Friday via Zoom (details will be tweeted out via Vera’s Twitter account) to help offer a community in these trying times.

“I have worked with Campus Pride for more than five years and it has given me both love and acceptance that I have never felt before,” Vera says. “I wanted to make sure that other individuals had space where they could go to escape the current difficult times”.

For both of these volunteers, it’s not just about being safe from COVID-19 but also about ensuring the community’s own mental wellness and safety. “It’s imperative that we check on one another,” Joyce-Ramos notes, expressing the importance of social interaction even through the virtual world.

Campus Pride executive director Shane Windmeyer.
Campus Pride executive director Shane Windmeyer. Credit: Courtesy Campus Pride

Vera echoes Joyce-Ramos’ point, adding that their organization’s initiative is also to provide a virtual community for LGBTQ2 people who may be forced to go back and stay in environments that put them at risk.

“Not everyone lives in a safe environment,” Vera says. “We decided to create a virtual house party where queer people not only communicate but ask for help if they need it.”

Joyce-Ramos says it’s about giving students who might feel scared and alone an atmosphere of peace and security. She adds, “Students are looking for any ways to cope… We want to acknowledge, educate and promote a safe space of love and acceptance that will ultimately keep folks sane within the coming months.”

For the organization, students should still be able to celebrate their pride even off-campus.

Jon Higgins

Check out the Mar. 18 to Mar. 24, 2020 installments of “COVID-19: Your Communities in Action.”