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Tiny homes, big-picture homeless solution?

Award-winning social worker MacDonald making a difference for Prince George clients during COVID times
18 Mary MacDonald social work award
Northern Health social worker Mary MacDonald has been selected for a Canada Cares award for her exceptional work advocating for the clients she sees regularly in her visits to their homes.

If Mary MacDonald had it within her power, construction would have started yesterday.

She envisions a village of tiny houses close to downtown Prince George as a huge step forward to solving the homeless crisis. It might seem a daunting challenge to get a project like that off the ground, but not if you have determined people like MacDonald pushing to get it done.

As a community social worker for Northern Health, she’s always thinking outside the box to make good things happen for her clients, especially who lack a place to call home.

“We’re in a huge homelessness crisis right now, housing is so challenging and often social workers are asked to deal with those issues and at present it’s really tough,” said MacDonald. “I honestly think from my perspective, housing is the most critical health issue that needs to be addressed.”

She says it will take co-operation and funding from the provincial and federal governments but the time is now to get creative and come up with alternative multi-agency solutions - like the closet-sized tiny homes that provide people their own secured space - which have proven successful in other cities to address homelessness.

“If we have the availability of stable housing for people as a starting point, it can help us work with people a lot more to help stabilize the rest of their health care situation,” said MacDonald. “I’ve looked at those tiny home concepts and I know they’ve been used in various places to address homelessness challenges and to me it’s an interesting concept.

“Then you can have a communal area, a community garden, because gardening and access to nature is extremely therapeutic to people. If they can get their hands in the dirt and start growing something there’s a huge amount of healing that happens in that.”

MacDonald’s exceptional efforts in providing home care for her clients have earned her recognition two weeks ago as winner of a Canada Cares national award for excellence as a health care professional. She was among hundreds of people nominated for award, handed out annually by Caregiver Solutions, a web-based information source to create awareness for family care givers operated by BCS Communications of Toronto. MacDonald is the only social worker and only B.C. resident among the nine chosen for the health care professional award.

As part of Northern Health’s primary care team, MacDonald meets clients dealing with a major health event or a chronic health condition. They are often disabled or suffering from extreme trauma or an addiction.

“It’s really holistic, what she does,” said Lauren Aldred, who nominated MacDonald for the award.

“It might mean helping people get connected to services, it might mean providing some counseling support in their homes. Advocating for them to make sure they get the services their entitled for is part of it.

“We think of front-line health care workers only being at the hospital but she is one of the people who puts on the PPE and goes into people’s homes. She might be the one person that somebody has contact with at all. Her smiling eyes are pretty important these days.”

In addition to her 15 years of social work experience, MacDonald holds masters degrees in law and social work. MacDonald’s knowledge of the legal system and her keen sense of social justice are key in her role advocating for clients trying to piece back together their lives despite being marginalized by such factors as poor health, poverty, trauma or racism and Aldred says she does her job in a way that protects their dignity and autonomy.

 “She’s a brilliant woman,” said Aldred, manager of spiritual health at University Hospital of Northern B.C. “She could be making hundreds of thousands of dollars but her heart is in direct client service and making that one-to-one connection with people, which she does.

“I think that combination of heart and intelligence is quite unique. Long before anybody else in this pandemic was warried about anything but physical health, she was flagging the mental, emotional and spiritual health on her clients, very aware that was being seriously impacted by the pandemic, as well as physical health concerns.”

No doubt, the pandemic has made MacDonald’s job more difficult and she’s been the bridge that keeps the lines of communication intact during what’s been a full year of forced isolation for many of her clients, especially those who are elderly or disabled and dealing with health issues.

 “A lot of the programs that I would typically want to access for my clients, if they didn’t shut down, they have very significantly adjusted the way they provide services, so it’s been extremely challenging,” said MacDonald. “I typically work very collaboratively with community agencies and try to formulate care plans to address social isolation, which is a known health risk factor.”

While other health care professionals have adjusted to the pandemic using Zoom and other teleconferencing options, many of MacDonald’s clients lack computer access or have cognitive/physical challenges and her work has to be done in person or over the phone if people want to avoid physical contact.

 “A lot of people are really scared of the virus and have isolated themselves, including not wanting to go to the hospital,” said MacDonald. “I’ve seen definite impacts on a lot of people’s mental health, which is one of the issues I would address - higher levels of depression and anxiety for sure. People are depressed because they’re not seeing their loved ones, who are trying to protect them by not going to see them. It’s manifesting itself as depression and anxiety that I’m seeing.”

MacDonald might be the only visitor some people have had in their homes in months and those visits serve as a reminder of the importance of her work. She knows she’s making a positive difference in people’s lives and that makes her work that much more rewarding.

“Fundamentally, humans are social creatures and the problem is not all the people in society have a comfortable social bubble to meet all their social needs,” she said. “It’s challenging with churches being shut down because church communities often rally around vulnerable people to provide support to them. That may still be happening in some instances, but for people who are hard of hearing or don’t have a computer they can’t see Zoom church gatherings. There are some people I’ve met who have completely lost that connection to that supportive church community.

“I just hope it gets better for people. In my 15 years of health care I’ve met some very inspiring people who have very significant challenges in their lives but are so tough and resilient and have figured out the best way to live for themselves. My role has always been to support them to have the best quality of life they can have, given their context, but they’re the ones who take the lead in doing that for themselves.”