Managing Uncertainty while Serving the Community

Finding Purpose during the Pandemic – a Centre County example

Currently, there over 1.7 million total unemployment compensation claims in Pennsylvania, an over 1000% increase in claims since early March, and only second to California. Considering that Pennsylvania is leading the nation in unemployment claims, and other states perhaps soon to follow, a sense of unease about the future settles in.

The long-term economic and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have yet to be revealed. The statewide “pause” of non-life-sustaining businesses enacted as a necessary prevention and mitigation measure will impact us all. How we live through and experience this unprecedented moment in time will look different across generations, class, race, and geographic location. There is a proliferation of unknowns. What are the outcomes? How do we move forward? When will things be “normal” again?

Unfortunately, these questions do not have straight-forward answers, and much still remains unknown. We do know that multitudes of people have been, and will be, impacted by the pandemic in a diversity of ways. We also know that we are all operating in uncertainty, and are all perhaps grappling with compounded feelings of loss, stress, helplessness, and lack of control.

In times like these, when there is little clarity and anxiety is high, it can be helpful to focus on what we do know, and what we have control over.

Taking a local focus

Research has shown that helping others can help us feel a sense of control and sense of purpose. As a former mental health clinician and social services case manager my natural inclination has always been to help. In the time of the coronavirus pandemic I wanted to better understand how helpers are helping. What unique challenges are they facing? Is there something actionable that community members can do? How are they keeping grounded and staying sane? To gain this understanding I spoke with Leanne Lutton Lenz, Executive Director at Centre Helps.

Situated near Penn State’s University Park campus, Centre Helps provides two core services: 1) a 24/7 emotional support and suicide prevention hotline in partnership with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and 2) information, referral, and case management services for basic physiological and safety needs (food, housing, heat).

Leanne spoke with me about the biggest challenges Centre Helps is facing, from hotline calls, to resource requests, and the experience of managing a human services organization during a global pandemic.

The shift to the new reality

I first spoke with Leanne in early April, two weeks after Penn State announced that remote course delivery would extend through spring semester. At that time, the changes incurred by the pandemic were still novel. Work from home was a new concept. Cloth masks weren’t a thing. During this time hotline calls had remained fairly routine, with exception to noticeable increases in requests for food resources as people started to prepare for what might come next.

The most recognizable change throughout mid-March into early April was the accompaniment of underlying increased anxiety on calls for otherwise routine concerns or requests. Not a call went by without the mention of the pandemic. This soon turned from a momentary increase in worry and fear to a more long-term reality that needed to be faced.

Supporting the unsheltered population in Centre County

Many of those within the Centre County homeless population are temporarily homeless; meaning they are making their way out of homelessness, are working, but not able to afford permanent housing. For those individuals, there will be missed opportunities as result of the pandemic -- non-life-sustaining work had been restricted, and those that had jobs may have lost them. A one-time crisis and opportunity for support has developed into a chronic uncertainty.

A collaborative task force of local human services agencies and representatives from Centre County and State College Borough, are meeting to discuss and support on-going initiatives related to homelessness concerns. The challenge the organizations themselves are facing is finding safe and sustainable solutions to support the unsheltered. For the immediate, organizations that operate sheltering programs, such as Housing Transitions,CentreSafe,Out of the Cold, and the Youth Services Bureau are working with hotels to assist those that have been displaced, or are in group homes, but this is not a long-term option.

Other opportunities to support the unsheltered are being explored, such as Airbnb, University housing, vacant fraternity housing, and more. Since the last I spoke with Leanne on May 6th, hotels are still working with organizations to provide shelter, but another option is needed.

The balance between managing present moment crises and planning for the long-term

The frequent swell and release of anxiety related to the dynamic nature of the pandemic and associated policy changes, amendments, and updates has left people feeling exhausted. Since the time I first spoke with Leanne in early April through the time I touched base with her again on May 6 th, and then again when I had the chance to sit down and put the finishing touches on this article (May 7th ) the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures had been extended three times: first April 30th, then May 11th, and most recently July 10th. What at first felt like two weeks of distancing has turned into a much longer event and a new reality. Strategy has had to shift from crisis management to resource gap fulfillment and endurance for the long-term.

A compounding factor of uncertainty

Although times are not business-as-usual, organizations have figured out how to operate within the new normal. An impact of the pandemic that is complicating matters for human services organizations is the loss of typical methods of funding and revenue generating services that may often be used in crisis situations. This has left agencies scrambling to ensure there are resources for those that need them, while staying afloat themselves.

Faith-based organization donations from collections have reduced since services aren’t being held, and various events and fundraisers that often generate significant income are also cancelled. Other programs that have registrant fees associated with them, such as the Youthful Offenders Program, a drug and alcohol diversion program, are also not currently operating as result of the pandemic.

To ensure that community members have access to services, agencies are coming together and pooling what they have available, looking for additional funding, and advocating for clients. Leanne remarked that for organizations to provide individuals with essential needs, there’s going to have to be more funding.

As organizations continue to operate within this new normal, there are lingering questions abound. Will there be enough volunteers? What will happen when the eviction moratorium ends? Are there enough resources for those who need them? How long will we need to sustain this?

Playing the long-game

Healthy team dynamics, trust, communication, and transparency have played a significant role in Centre Helps’ resiliency and ability to sustain during the prolonged and ambiguous nature of the pandemic including the constant shifts in information, resources, and concerns.

The staff and volunteers of Centre Helps, a majority of whom are Penn State students, have been flexible and able to adapt to the new normal. Responding to calls, logging updated resources, communicating in GroupMe, and scouring social media are part of the regular routine of providing the most up-to-date details to callers. The information intake is constant, and is ever-changing.

While helping others, helpers themselves are also experiencing loss, change, and are grieving what normalcy had existed for them. To prevent helper-fatigue and burnout, Leanne is creating opportunities for helpers to come together and unload. She is also encouraging people to take a day off when they need it. She acknowledges that in order to help others you must first take care of yourself.

What does moving forward look like?

The pandemic will have long-term downstream social and economic impacts which continue remain unseen. As Pennsylvania begins to move into the yellow phase of reopening, is there anything actionable we can do to?

What Leanne and the volunteers and staff at Centre Helps have demonstrated is that when there are unknowns, we can move forward by taking care of ourselves, focusing on what is within our control and what is actionable, and through supporting others. Helping others through small actions contribute to a sense of purpose. We can offer understanding, compassion, and kindness to others as a support mechanism during a time that otherwise may feel overwhelming and directionless.

Opportunities for impact and support

While our experiences of the pandemic are diverse, we can connect through solidarity and support. Below are four small actions you can take to create an impact, and gain a sense of purpose in this time of unknowns.

1. Learn about the experiences of others and the challenges they may be facing

Although learning of the challenges of others can be painful, it helps to give us empathy. Empathy informs better understanding of human beings, enhances our connections, and increases our self-awareness. These traits in turn produce more robust and informed research and policy.

Create opportunities while on the phone, writing an email, at the grocery store, or reading an article to consider how you might respond if you were in the other person’s shoes. What challenges or difficulties might they be experiencing? If you are able, ask them what their experience has been like.

2. Increase awareness of community groups and initiatives

We can make a difference despite distance by staying aware of what is going on in our community, identifying where resources are available, where gaps exist, and talking about these within our circles. You can learn more about Centre County and Pennsylvania human services agencies and initiatives at these related sites: Centre Foundation, Community Safety Net , Council for Human Services,United Way, Pennsylvania 211.

3. Take a moment to take a breath and offer up some kindness

Be kind to yourself, and be kind to others. This is a difficult time, and the impacts of the pandemic are unique to each person; we don’t know what each of us might be dealing with.

Give yourself permission to take time for things that fulfill you, and pay attention to when you are feeling stressed or frustrated. When you are stressed or frustrated take a break by taking a walk, taking a deep breath, or stand up and stretch. These actions reduce stress and prevent knee-jerk reactions which may have their own un-intended ripple effects.

Assume the positive first. That passive-aggressive email is likely not a personal slight, but someone trying to manage. The best thing you can do as a consumer and colleague is be kind. We are all spread thin, and regardless of reason, we all deserve some kindness.

4. Volunteer

Volunteering your time, knowledge, and skills can make a huge impact. Many non-profits are volunteer based and could use a variety of skills including management, technical, writing, research, design, financial, and more. If you are able to volunteer, there are ways to do so from a distance. The Centre County COVID-19 Community Response (4CR) has an expansive list of ways to help during the COVID-19 Pandemic including Resident-to-Resident Support and opportunities for requesting and offering services.

Article Topics: community, homelessness, human services, non-profit, prevention, civic-engagement, Centre County, Pennsylvania
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