The need to act fast during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to brilliant breakthroughs in supporting British Columbians with complex needs, says the chief executive officer of John Howard Society Pacific.
“Throughout the pandemic, discussions of challenges moved to operational plans much faster than we ever could have imagined,” Mark Miller says. “I really saw that we have the ability in B.C. to make these decisions quickly, to get a service happening.”
An example of that is John Howard’s new Community Support Initiative (CSI), launched in the early months of the pandemic in partnership with the provincial government. BC Corrections works with community partners and First Nations to prevent homelessness and return people to their home communities when they are being released from custody.
John Howard organizations were once known primarily for their work with men involved in the criminal justice system. These days, the non-profit community social service works more broadly to support all people with complex needs to live and thrive within their communities.
Through CSI, the agency worked closely with BC Housing, the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction and BC Corrections to find housing for people who were at risk of being homeless upon release from a correctional centre.
“Our organization was able to mobilize services and has supported more than 285 people in communities all over B.C. since the program began in May 2020,” Miller says.
Clients come to John Howard with personal experiences of trauma, incarceration, cultural and systemic barriers, extreme poverty and homelessness. They receive individualized support through diverse community-based programs. Others have lifelong developmental disabilities and are supported through services and specialized housing funded by Community Living BC.
The John Howard Society also has a contract with the Canada Border Services Agency to support and temporarily house people detained at the Canada-U.S. border, who would otherwise have to be held in correctional facilities.
Being able to deliver the new CSI services across the six John Howard non-profits operating in the province has been key to the success of the program, Miller says.
“John Howard Pacific is the contract holder, and we have service agreements with the other John Howard Society regions,” he says. “Shared services are something we need to look at doing more of in our sector. We need to find the ways to work collaboratively and allow the grassroots work to be done within the community.”
John Howard Society also provides services in the Yukon. Mid-pandemic, the organization created supervised housing located in unused space at a Correctional Service Canada federal correctional facility. Housing in the territory is chronically scarce for people being released from incarceration.
“The pandemic has been an interesting period of time that way,” says Miller. “I recently spoke at the National Criminal Justice Symposium because of the work we were able to do during the pandemic, including for people in the justice system. While COVID-19 has certainly been challenging, it has also created opportunities to do things differently.”
Almost a third of John Howard’s clients are Indigenous. Helping more Indigenous clients reconnect with their Nation of origin is a key goal for the organization, Miller says.
Housing will continue to be a major focus area for John Howard and virtually any community non-profit serving people experiencing poverty, says Miller. But he adds that housing isn’t where the story ends.
“Our staff continually note the need for progress – to follow housing with employment, or school or some other purpose,” Miller says. “Once you’ve got piece 1 in place, what’s piece 2? How do we support people to grow into the strongest person they can be? Let’s not stop at housing. Let’s work to engage people in an inclusive society.”
The B.C. government proclaimed March as Community Social Services Awareness Month in appreciation of the more than 42,000 people who work in the community social services sector. They provide help and assistance to those who need it most.
John Howard Society: https://jhspacific.ca/
For the Community Social Services Awareness Month Proclamation, visit: https://www.bclaws.gov.bc.ca/civix/document/id/proclamations/proclamations/CommSocSerAwarenessMonth2021