When COVID-19 first entered our communities in early March, Ottawa Public Health requested that United Way East Ontario take action and work with local social service agencies and local partners to address the social needs in our communities while they address the health needs.
Since then, United Way East Ontario has been bringing together the COVID-19 Community Response Table: a group of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, elected officials from all levels of government, and many others committed to supporting people through the effects of COVID-19 on our communities.
While the table took a short hiatus from meetings over the past few weeks, the work did not stop. For those of us in the social sector, the work never stops—our communities depend on us. We continued to connect and collaborate, across the region, to tackle the tough problems.
Rallying together once again
Moving into autumn, it’s important to acknowledge where we have mitigated the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable people—and continue that vital work—but to also identify where we continue to struggle, and areas that require further innovation, resources, advocacy, and collaboration to support those who need us most.
By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario
As our table resumes regular meetings, now is also the time to think bigger and more boldly about long-term solutions.
Our continued purpose is to build stronger, more equitable communities than ever before, and ensure people are armed with the tools they need to not just survive, but thrive.
With persistent creative, resourceful collaboration, this next phase in our COVID-19 response will bring us towards a future that is socially fair for everyone.
Addressing the need for data
We understand the importance of quantitative and qualitative data in assessing the effects of COVID-19 and our efforts to help those in need. Having robust data, hard facts, and stories of lived experiences helps service providers understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing our communities.
Over the past several weeks, United Way East Ontario has been assembling a report that aims to summarize and understand the policies, programs, and partnerships established or adapted in response to COVID-19, and the effects of those efforts on vulnerable populations whose struggles have been amplified by the pandemic.
Through a social justice lens and with consultations from community experts, the report will take a focused look at financial insecurity, housing and homelessness, mental health and addictions, education equity, isolation and connectivity, safety, and community agency capacity in Prescott-Russell, Ottawa, Lanark County and Renfrew County.
The report will break down the social sector’s response to factors that were already difficult for marginalized groups, and whether the efforts made a positive impact on the challenges they were facing.
Although our report is still in the works, we are proud to put forth a community-supported piece of literature that will help us assess needs—both immediate and future—and help us plan ahead for future work.
Looking back, thinking ahead
We used our latest Community Response Table meeting to reflect on what the group has accomplished over the course of the summer.
Investing for impact
It is not enough for us to invest our resources where they can do good, we also need to know they have made a measurable difference for the most vulnerable in our communities.
Here’s an update of how funders have invested to make a difference over the past six months, and what’s to come:
United Way East Ontario
- As is our promise 365 days a year, in times of crisis, United Way identifies the areas of greatest need—demonstrated by research, real-time data and stories of lived experience—and invests to make the greatest impact for vulnerable people in our communities.
Between March 17 and August 31, 2020, United Way East Ontario invested more than $5.3 million dollars, all to support more than 120 local initiatives that respond to the effects of COVID-19. These programs help isolated seniors, improve access to basic needs, build capacity for community services, strengthen mental health support, and empower volunteers.
We’ve also extended our annual funding agreements until the end of the calendar year, to maintain stability for local agencies and community organizations during the pandemic.
The strategy to invest in our communities is a direct result of input from the more than 70 partners that have participated in the Community Response Table. Continued donations help United Way strengthen our ongoing COVID-19 response. Donate here.
Ottawa Community Foundation
- The Ottawa Community Foundation’s fall round of COVID-19 Rapid-Response Community Fund Grants is now open, which allows applicants to specify needs for pivots, adjustments, and alternative financing to account for COVID-19.
Other funding opportunities include the Investment Readiness Program through Community Foundations of Canada. This fund supports social purpose organizations as they contribute to solving social, cultural and environmental challenges across Canada.
City of Ottawa
- The City of Ottawa’s Social Services Relief Fund received over 79 applications with a total ask of $3.5 million dollars in community funding. The fund aims to assist nonprofits and charitable organizations delivering social services with the extraordinary costs associated with their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A word from elected representatives
At this week’s meeting, we heard from frequent Community Response Table contributors, Marie-France Lalonde, Member of Parliament for Orléans, and Laura Dudas, Ottawa City Councillor for Innes Ward 2 and Deputy Mayor, on updates from their respective levels of government. Government representatives use the insight they receive at these meetings to inform policy decisions at multiple levels.
Since March, the federal government has implemented a significant number of programs to support individuals, families, businesses, and the most vulnerable people as we cope with the lasting impact of COVID-19. Since our last meeting, the Government of Canada has launched the Black Entrepreneurship Fund, reopened funding and is now accepting applications for the New Horizons for Seniors Program, extended the application for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) to support small businesses on the brink of eviction, increased capacity to produce PPE and create jobs at the 3M plant in Brockville, and are planning ahead for the transition of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
With the Prime Minister’s upcoming throne speech on September 23, Minister Lalonde urged the table to tune in for even further updates on the national COVID-19 response, Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy, and other forthcoming changes.
Councillor Laura Dudas also addressed the local work and the challenges that lie ahead.
The City of Ottawa’s Human Needs Task Force has worked tirelessly over the summer months, completing more than 7,000 wellness visits, overseeing 2,556 visits at the McNabb Arena respite centre for people experiencing homelessness, and, with support from United Way, distributed more than 350,000 disposable masks to those in need.
With affordable housing and employment precarity being of high priority, the City has identified and matched people experiencing homelessness with 13 housing units, and continues to seek out affordable housing units to make available ASAP.
Similarly, the City’s Economic Task Force is working closely with BIAs, Invest Ottawa, and the Ottawa Board of Trade to bring jobs back, bolster jobs that will be impacted over the winter, and give employers a full tool box to tackle what comes next.
Councillor Dudas urged the table to think boldly about how we can use this moment in time to strengthen our city for years to come.
On the frontlines
A portion of our meeting was dedicated to hearing from representatives from across the social sector, on how the pandemic has affected them and their service capabilities over the summer.
Ottawa Public Health
- Marino Francispillai of Ottawa Public Health introduced the table to Ottawa Public Health’s Neighbourhood Cluster Teams: a small, mighty team within OPH that has various language skills, who focus on certain neighbourhoods within the city that are low-income, racialized, immigrants or newcomers. These teams help bring the message about COVIDWise practices to particular communities, and hear about how they can better communicate with residents from a cultural perspective.
Ottawa Public Health has also had a strong focus on supporting children and families as they transition back to schools, and have hired and trained 45 nurses in recent weeks. These nurses will work in schools to spread public health messaging and best practices, all with a goal of keeping schools open and families safe.
Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres of Ottawa
- Andrea Poncia of the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres of Ottawa spoke to the table about how each CHRC had an individualized response to COVID-19. Employees and volunteers from CHRCs created a hybrid model of service that allowed for as many people as possible to receive the help they needed.
While virtual care programming allowed many community members to receive support, the CHRCs quickly realized that in-person services are integral for mental health services, especially for youth and newcomers. For newcomers, the need for social contact outweighs the threat of infection.
The Table Community Food Centre
- Ramsey Hart of The Table Community Food Centre in Perth noted a decrease in food bank demand in rural communities over the summer months—a stark opposite to urban centres.
Over the summer, the Lanark County and Smith Falls Pandemic Response Table conducted a wellness survey of rural residents that yielded 800+ responses. Key takeaways showed that, although one quarter of respondents admitted to having food insecurities, around 18 per cent noted that they wouldn’t use the food bank because they felt there were others who needed it more.
Other challenges in rural communities included income precarity (14 percent of respondents applied for and accessed CERB;, accessing community housing that had adequate sanitation and adhered to safety protocols; and childcare, as there are currently no Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) within the county.
211 – Community Information Centre of Ottawa
- Daniel Dussault of 211 – Community Information Centre of Ottawa noted a higher volume of calls and texts to the community and social services help line, with the average call also lasting longer as time passes. The service has struggled over the summer months with helping people navigate the constantly-changing offerings of services. The helpline is updating their database of service providers daily to account for closures and new programs.
Daniel noted that 211 is now conducting even more follow-up calls to see if residents have been able to access resources and assess what needs are still unmet.
Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region
- Charles Laframboise of the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region shared that although calls to distress centre are slightly higher than previous years, the number of COVID-related calls are down to 12 per cent, and the situation is relatively stable.
Charles did note that calls have been more complex and longer in duration, with callers having more issues to discuss. While feelings of isolation are less prevalent, feelings of anxiety and distress are on the rise among callers.
What lies ahead
As echoed throughout today’s meeting, the challenges caused or worsened by COVID-19 have not gone away.
In fact, the change of seasons and the upcoming winter months will only bring new risks and challenges for the most vulnerable populations across our region.
By pinpointing areas that demand our attention, we can recommend and fight for programs, partnerships, and policy changes to guarantee a stronger future for everyone.
There is no absence of bold, creative solutions at our fingertips that can lift up the most vulnerable and create more equitable communities. Our mission is to work together through a lens of social justice, to build a better future for everyone.
When we join together and make our voices heard, we can make that future a reality.
In early March, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health and dozens of organizations across the community sector, United Way launched an initiative to help support the most vulnerable in response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) affecting our region. This collaboration has enabled local problem solving, prioritization of needs, and collaboration. To learn more about supporting the initiative, or if you require community service assistance, please visit unitedwayeo.ca/covid19.