CALGARY -- Social agencies are scrambling to cope with the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food banks across Canada are hoping for a conference call Monday morning to discuss how they can continue to operate while maintaining social distance. 

At the same time they expect a surge in demand as job losses and financial strains mount on the average Canadian family. 

Calgary Food Bank CEO James McAra said the food bank has had a pandemic plan in place since the SARS outbreak in 2004.

"We want to make sure that people are safe that the food is safe," McAra said. "We have an ability to decentralize very quickly. So working either with community partners, or identifying areas where we can develop pop up mobile solutions, so that food to those most vulnerable is never an issue."

McAra said they are planning several food aid distribution scenarios, from delivering from the truck of a car or five-ton truck, to opening a warehouse or facility that will safely get food to where it's needed.

McAra said the availability of fresh produce and perishable foods may diminish the quantity and quality of the hampers that are delivered.

"This situation is unique because we won't have some of the perishables that we rely on to maintain the Canada's Food Guide Hamper, which is our standard."

McAra stressed the food bank will continue to take donations and work with volunteers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but will be changing the way they are scheduled to ensure fewer people are present at any one time, allowing them to maintain a safe distance from each other while working.

Shelter surge

Shelters for those fleeing family violence also expect a surge in demand as a result of and the societal stress of COVID-19.

Shelters across Alberta were already short of space to accommodate people fleeing family violence.

“We are looking at innovative ways, proactive ways at making sure we are getting people in as quickly as possible," said Monique Auffrey, CEO of Calgary's Discovery House.

"I don't think it's about building shelter spaces. I think it's about opening up what we already have access to. We have empty, empty, buildings downtown. We've got empty motel rooms, empty hotels with the (COVID-19) situation, and tourism being affected by this as well. I think we just need to be thinking creatively. We can't keep pace with bricks and mortar."

Agencies helping the homeless in Calgary also find themselves thrust into a difficult position.

On Friday the Calgary Drop-In Centre announced it was cancelling all volunteer shifts and suspending future volunteer opportunities. According to Drop-In CEO Sandra Clarkson, there are approximately 100 volunteers at the Drop-In on most days. It is rescheduling employees to help cover essential services.

“It’s all hands on deck. We have been able to adapt and the biggest impact we're seeing is meal service and sponsored meals," saids Clarkson. "Often people would sponsor a meal and come in and volunteer. So we're hoping that people will continue to sponsor the meal, despite the volunteer opportunities not currently being there."

Vulnerable population

Clarkson said the rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced shelters across the country to rethink what services can be delivered, and how to deliver them.

"It's an immense concern and we're taking steps outwardly to adapt to try to minimize the risk of spread," said Clarkson. 

"Everybody's really rallying together behind all of the shelters, not just the DI, because this population is so vulnerable and they don't have any other options in terms of places to go  — they can't self-isolate or self-quarantine."

The Drop-In Centre has also stopped taking donations at its emergency shelter, but its donation centre in northeast Calgary remains open.

Distress Centre Calgary manages a 24-hour crisis line (403-266-HELP).

It is preparing for a flood of calls as anxiety builds over the spread of the pandemic and its social and economic effects.

Over the weekend it tested its systems allowing staff and volunteers to work from home and still maintain full service.

Spokesperson Diane Jones-Konihowski said based on previous disasters like the Fort McMurray fires and the 2013 flood, calls to the crisis line tend to rise dramatically about a week to two weeks after the initial event. The public response to COVID-19 is similar so far, she said.

Distress Centre Calgary continues to operate its 24-hour hotline and online chat.