Entering the social service maze


“This maze will take you through the thoughts, feelings and emotions of our clients who are attempting to secure food, shelter and finances.”

On May 9th, at the Civic Centre in Iroquois, the Dundas Interagency Committee sponsored a Homelessness Maze.

The event was organized to give workers in the social service professions an opportunity to experience what their clients might experience and to provide a clearer picture of the hardships and frustrations they face daily while attempting to secure food, shelter and financial assistance. 

According to Julie Graham, a member of the Dundas Interagency Committee and a health educator and promoter for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU), this was the second time the committee has run this event. 

“We had hosted our first in 2009 and it was quite the success thanks to the Canadian Mental Health Association. So, we asked them to come out again this year to  host one in South Dundas,” she said. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) of Champlain East organized and led the ‘maze’ at the May 9th event.

Kim Height, team supervisor in Cornwall for the CMHA, introduced the idea of the Homelessness Maze to the area four years ago when she created her own version of the maze in Cornwall.

Since then, she has led two maze events in Cornwall, one in North Dundas and, now, one in South Dundas. She was first introduced to the idea at an event in Toronto.

The idea, said Height, is to “instill compassion” in service agency workers and to give them the opportunity “to really experience what it’s like to be somebody searching for those services.”

Some of the agencies participating in the event were: Job Zone, Health Units in Leeds, Grenville and Lanark and Eastern Ontario, T.R. Leger, Ontario Works, the House of Lazarus, various ministries, Cornwall and Area Housing Authority, South Dundas Township, North Dundas Township, United Counties of Leeds and Grenville, the Williamsburg Non-Profit Housing, and the Legal Clinic.

According to Graham, the day began with groups meeting outside the Iroquois Civic Centre  where they received their information package. 

Each group, whether it contained four, five or six members, received one package with details of the “character” they would be playing. 

Graham’s group of five were “pretending” to be a woman with two small children.

Height explained that the “characters” were chosen from the vulnerable sector or the high-risk population.

The maze portion of the event required each group to navigate through the various agencies as the character (client profile) they were given. 

In order to replicate the difficulty faced by those attempting to access help from one agency to another, barriers were set up. Finding and even getting to each station was a challenge.

In addition, there could be significant wait times, mimicking the reality many of their clients face daily.

“We’re making it difficult for them,” said Height of the participants in the event. “We’re asking them to work as a group and then come back and talk about their emotions.”

“If they’re experiencing this within an hour, then imagine someone living with this,” she said of the frustration some of the participants were exhibiting.

Graham pointed out that “it is not clear-cut, there’s lots of red tape. It’s not easy to acquire the basics that a human being needs.”

Mark Snelgrove, CMHA employee in charge of this year’s Homelessness Maze, pointed out that “we get as many of the real service providers – actual people with the actual knowledge – as possible.” 

He was referring to the many stations set up throughout the maze, including the food bank, Ontario Works, the landlord, the legal clinic, social housing, the bank, the resource centre, and the detention centre.

Snelgrove said “there’s a detention center for breaking the rules.” Graham had already been to the detention center once for breaking a rule.

Following the maze, which took approximately two hours, the participants were given the opportunity to come back together to discuss their experiences.

The main question they addressed, said Graham, is “What are some of the issues our clients are facing?”

Participants were given “the opportunity to suggest some potential changes to make it a bit more user-friendly,” reported Graham.

“It’s all about feeling the real experience that our clients would experience,” said Snelgrove. 

“It’s to remind people of the human side: everyone who comes through has a story and everyone is an individual.”

As to the success of the event, according to Graham, “this one exceeded the first.” 

Height added that “as for the comments I’ve been hearing, it’s working as successfully as it did the first time.”

Ben Macpherson, representative for the Township of South Dundas, said, “I was one of many who helped put the day together and also participated in the event.” 

“We had a very good turnout of 64 people across a variety of agencies. It was a great way to see the difficulties and frustrations that people face when dealing with the organizations that were represented,” he added.

After receiving the information package and before beginning the maze, the May 9th participants were treated to a one hour presentation about the 211 Ontario service.

According to their website, www.211ontario.ca, 211 Ontario “provides information and referral to community and social services in Ontario.”

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