- Humans are social beings – without touch infants wither and die. In situations of crisis or emergencies, those who are isolated are most at risk. Vancouver groups have explored many programs and initiatives to address social isolation.
- How do we build caring communities where people are connected and engaged?
- What structures can we build into our social safety net to catch those that are isolated?
- How do we create a sense of home and belonging for newcomers, outsiders, singles, widows and widowers, differently abled, queers, those who don’t look like us…?
- What is working and what can we learn from those experiences?
There were 12 participants at this table plus the table lead Lidia Kemeny and notetaker Aneesha Grewal. Most participants worked or had worked with social service agencies or non-profits. Many were immigrants and/or had experiences that provided insights into the issue of social isolation (e.g. sexual orientation, age, mental health).
Participants discussed issues specific to Vancouver that increase social isolation such as: the high number of people who are from other places; a culture that prioritizes work; racism; social interactions based on transactional relations (e.g. with service providers); and cultural differences in how people interact. Lack of affordability was identified as a significant contributor to social isolation. For example, seniors or those on fixed incomes have difficulty socializing as it costs money. Young people are reluctant to put down roots as they may not be able to afford to stay in Vancouver. These impressions are supported by the Vancouver Foundation’s 2012 and 2017 social isolation reports, which interviewed 3,800 people across the Metro Vancouver region. The report had five high level findings:
- Metro Vancouver is a hard place to make friends;
- Neighborhood relationships are cordial but not deep;
- There is not a lot of faith in each other to solve neighbourhood problems;
- Neighbourhood trust is not very strong;
- Many people are retreating from community life.
The report also noted that many people want to increase connections with others, but do not know how. The participants noted challenges to social service organizations such as lack of space and funding that makes it difficult to provide consistent opportunities for people to connect, and recognized that effectively connecting with others can sometimes require changes in how people think – e.g. moving from a colonization model to one of reconciliation.
Social Isolation is one of the biggest challenges facing us, and the City of Vancouver has a role to play in the ways we connect.
- Costs: health coverage, community wellbeing, loss of cultural connection/heritage/history. Isolation hinders creative ability, and creates mental physical and economic challenges.
- Social isolation impacts on all aspects of life. An inventory of existing infrastructure can explore where there may be opportunities to address social isolation.
- Social isolation is an issue that impacts all demographics. Research to explore the benefits of preventive measures is needed.
- The absence of immediate family for many in Vancouver highlights the need for strategies to ensure people have contacts to rely on in case of emergency or disaster.
- Income, mental illness, and addictions further isolates people. How can we better include and welcome these residents?
- Racism in park spaces and in public spaces requires discussion with police force.
- Othering is a form of social isolation. Cyclical othering within othered communities can be positive (don’t ‘other’ others) and negative (‘other’ others).
- Holidays and weekends can accentuate increased social isolation.
- Celebrations help us get to know each other in Vancouver.
- Inclusive, safe and accessible spaces can increase community connectedness. Affordability and housing play a key role in socialization. Defensive/inaccessible architecture can impact social isolation.
- “Co-housing” and “intentional communities,” bringing people with common interests or a collective purpose together, and provide models for fostering relationships and breaking isolation.
- Residents with disabilities face further barriers to connecting and require targeted strategies.
- Solutions are multifaceted and require strategies for individual and neighbourhood level interventions.
Policies in a wide range of areas such as built environment, education, housing, equity, and accessibility affect social isolation. Needed program and resource supports include:
- Implementing the Social Isolation and Loneliness Amongst Seniors (SILAS) Report by City of Vancouver Seniors Advisory Committee including recommendations regarding improving safety, walkability, transit, sociable design, and engaging fire and rescue.
- Creating more spaces for informal connections that can build on existing initiatives and may be informed by the TRC’s Call to Action.
- Incorporating the lens of social connections within housing strategies.
- Supporting proven existing strategies that bring neighbours together with a specific focus on intergenerational connections.
The West End Seniors’ Network noted that one of the biggest issues facing older adults related to social isolation is transportation and overcoming mobility challenges. Recently they have begun working with buildings that have a high proportion of older adults as residents to activate the lobbies and common spaces with social, recreational, and educational programming. Food is provided, and volunteers knock on doors to invite people to attend. These events are open to all, and intergenerational relationships and connections among neighbours are encouraged.
The Indigenous Wellness Team – Provincial Health Services Authority aims to improve the health and well-being of Indigenous people, and to close the health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous British Columbians. The program has been looking at issues of social isolation and recognises that while technology can enable community-building, it is important to have physical spaces in which people can meet and develop meaningful face-to-face relationships.
Vancouver Foundation has been funding the non-profit sector in Vancouver for 75 years, supporting programs that enhance and contribute to community well-being. Vancouver Foundation is addressing social isolation through the Neighbourhood Small Grants program which provides grants of $50-$500 to projects that bring neighbours together and which has been documented and evaluated to increase belonging in the communities it is offered.
Hogan’s Alley Society focuses on housing justice and equality for Black people living in the DTES. Early initiatives on social inclusion such as connecting the DTES Black community through weekly dinners has had uneven results due to a lack of permanent space. The proposed Black cultural centre as part of the Hogan’s Alley revitalization will provide important stability for initiatives promoting social inclusion in the DTES Black community.
The Riverview Village proposal envisions a new community of mentally ill and non-mentally ill living together on the Riverview Lands. For many people living with serious mental illness there are 2 housing models- scattered site housing or congregant housing- both of which often result in a lack of meaningful relationships that do not involve transactional relationships (i.e. people who are paid to look after you). A mixed community will provide an environment more conducive to meaningful relationships.
MOSAIC’s refugee sponsorship program sets up five individuals as the sponsors for new refugee families. They introduce the family to friends, jobs, housing etc. This model goes beyond organizational support to help refugees build social networks and communities.
A program of the South Granville Seniors Centre, the Model DTES Seniors Alliance Centre, emphasizes outreach to seniors, visiting them in their apartments or holding snack and social events in their residential buildings to break down barriers of isolation. The Seniors’ Centre also offers many programs for seniors including ones tailored to specific language communities.
Qmunity is a non-profit organization based in Vancouver, BC that works to improve queer, trans, and Two-Spirit lives. They provide a safe space in their building as well as counseling, peer support, educational resources and events, and support for families. They also work with partner organizations such as MOSAIC to do outreach in refugee/newcomer communities and in Indigenous communities.
Beyond the Conversation is a non-profit association with the goal of ending social isolation by building strong community through conversation. With over 400 regular participants and 13 meetings, the program helps newcomers learn English, develop social networks, share cultures and experiences, and end stigma around mental health support.