By Jim Bell, CEO, Siloam Mission

** This column first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press **

Schools are back in session.

Stores are open. Families and friends are enjoying each other’s company. And for many of us, our days are business as usual — with certain inconveniences like wearing a mask.

On the surface, it seems we’re ‘back to normal’.

But of course, none of it is normal.

The past six months have introduced the kind of uncertainty that lingers, ever present, in the forefront of our daily thoughts.

We gauge our days by the number of new COVID-19 cases announced. We hope and pray our children and grandchildren come back safe and healthy every morning we send them back to class.

We fret when we forget our mask at home, or when we can’t find our hand sanitizer in the car. When we walk down the aisles of the grocery store, we try our best to avoid getting too close to fellow shoppers — turning our heads away as we pass them in a hurry.

With fall in the air, even the smallest symptoms of a seasonal allergy are cause for concern. Do I have Covid-19? Should I get tested?

But perhaps the biggest change the coronavirus has introduced — beyond those who fell ill from the disease — is the wear and tear on our spiritual wellbeing.

At Siloam Mission, it has become clear that the pandemic has increased the burden of depression and poor mental health in the men and women who use our services.

Many have lived in fear for the past few months. Fear of getting the virus. Fear of their underlying conditions putting them at higher risk of getting seriously ill.

These fears are showing up in their conversations with our spiritual care team. And they are showing up in the mental and spiritual wellbeing of our community members.

A few weeks ago, we opened the new Buhler Centre at Siloam Mission.

It’s a 54,000 square foot expansion right beside our original building on 300 Princess St. that kind and caring Manitobans contributed toward building.

When we started the project years ago, we had no idea that the COVID-19 pandemic would make the grand opening a smaller affair.

But we were seeing another pandemic rear its ugly head.

The combination of trauma (much of it remnants from early-childhood trauma), addictions and mental health illness was — and still is — a widespread symptom of those who came through our doors.

It’s true, people end up homeless for a myriad of reasons.

There are as many unique stories as there are people coming for a meal or sleeping in our shelter.

But we found that more than 50% of people who rely on our services grew up in foster care. We found that a majority struggle to cope with trauma. We found that a majority struggle with poor mental health.

And we found that addictions was a coping mechanism to mask pain and mental health issues — and in the process, magnified each of those problems significantly.

The new Buhler Centre has been a years-long effort to ramp up our services to help people with food and shelter and housing and employment — but also with addictions and trauma and mental health.

The new space makes room for extended health services, including a greater focus on mental health. It makes room for new transitional beds, special sleeping pods designed to help people who are in a shelter for the first-time recover quickly and move on before falling into the unforgiving cycle of homelessness.

And it makes room in our original building to start building 20 recovery units — spaces for people coming out of addictions treatment programs to help them stay sober.

Too many men and women do the courageous work of entering treatment, only to come out with nobody — and no place — to turn to. Without any supports, they often end up homeless again, and relapse.

And so as our lives are all disrupted for the next year or so — and nothing is normal — it’s a good reminder that homelessness shouldn’t be considered normal, either.

People sleeping on the streets because they are plagued by trauma and mental health illness shouldn’t be normal.

People unsure where their next meal will come from in one of the world’s wealthiest societies shouldn’t be normal.

People relapsing after doing the hard work of getting sober because the right supports aren’t in place shouldn’t be normal.

Siloam is blessed by caring and compassionate people who support us from the outside, and the ones who work and receive services on the inside.

My hope is that when all of this is over, we will emerge stronger and even more caring and compassionate.

My hope is that we won’t go back to normal. My hope is that we will have realized that normal was part of the problem in the first place.

And we will have realized what truly matters in life: each other.