Two months ago, the dining room at Souls Harbour Rescue Mission on Cunard Street bustled with staff, volunteers, and people popping in for lunch. Since COVID-19 took hold, lunch is much quieter.

Soul’s Harbour operates three drop-in centres in Halifax, Truro, and Bridgewater. It serves nutritious lunches on weekdays, and hosts lifeskill classes and a weekly “street level” chapel service. The centres also feature clothing rooms where clients can handpick from donations.

Everything but the lunch program is on hold until provincial social-distancing measures are relaxed. Instead of a sit-down lunch and a chance to browse the clothing room, make phone calls, and read the paper, clients queue up on the sidewalk to take away a bag lunch.

“We have a very tight COVID security system,” says Michelle Porter who founded the ministry with her husband Rev. Ken Porter. “We make sure every staff member has a commitment to not going out. You’re getting your groceries delivered and you’re not going to sneak around and do stuff. We’re very firm on that.”

The rules are strict, but necessary. Many of the mission’s clients are from vulnerable populations, including seniors and those who access homeless shelters. As a result of the new measures, the mission’s volunteer count went from 600 to 10, and the group laid off half of its 30 staff to cut costs.

While the number of helping hands is lower, demand for the lunch program is up 50%. The Halifax location now serves about 200 lunches per day, and the Bridgewater and Truro locations serve about 100 together. Soul’s Harbour is the only organization still operating a lunch program in Truro and Bridgewater, and new pop-up shelters in the area mean more mouths to feed.

The mission’s costs have also increased since switching to the brown bag program. Meals were traditional served in the dining room on ceramic plates, costing about $3.11 per meal. The extra expense of takeaway containers and items like packaged granola bars, raises the cost to $4.85.

“We didn’t realize until the first or second shopping trip how expensive it was going to be to do sack lunches,” Porter says. “If you’re talking about Bridgewater and Truro, prices are higher there for things like to-go containers. We do weekly transport trips, just to try to save some money.”

Previously, Porter says the mission was extremely environmentally conscious, but today it’s focused on finding a hot soup container that doesn’t leak.

An additional challenge is that the group had to temporarily close Mission Mart, the thrift store it operates in Bayers Lake as an extra revenue stream. On May 6, Mission Mart will host a parking-lot giveaway offering clothing and household supplies to those who need it.

Early on in the outbreak, Soul’s Harbour received a surprise grant, and the response to an emergency appeal letter it sent out to donors was positive. The mission doesn’t get government funding and operates entirely on donations.

“You can only send out one emergency appeal, you cannot do two,” says Porter. “So yes, it was amazing and so generous, but I don’t know what we’ll do next month. What makes it harder is knowing there’s people who aren’t working. It’s like, ‘Well, I’m going ask you, and I’m sorry, because you probably need a lunch too.’ It was challenging to try to be sensitive to what our donors are going through.”

If you want to help, Soul’s Harbour needs packaged lunch items or financial donations to put toward buying food and takeaway containers. The mission also seeks personal hygiene items to give away to clients, such as deodorant, tooth paste and toilet paper.

Drop off donations to Mission Mart at 265 Susie Lake Cres. (side door), Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.

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