Over the past two and a half months, we have seen that the social challenges people face on a regular basis have not gone away because of COVID-19. In many cases, those challenges have gotten much worse, and have required innovation to make sure the most vulnerable don’t fall through the cracks.
As communities across Canada begin to stabilize in their response to the pandemic, and as businesses in Ontario consider reopening and adapting their services, the social services sector is also planning for what comes next.
For months now, United Way East Ontario has been bringing together a table of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and many others. In the same way we worked together with our communities to support Syrian refugees, to recover after the 2018 tornadoes, and to rebuild after the 2019 floods, we are again working diligently to support the most vulnerable through this unparalleled event.
This week, our table met again to hear from community sector leaders who have been helping people meet their basic needs through COVID-19. This includes John Hoyles of 211 – Community Information Centre of Ottawa, Sylvie Lefebvre of Services Communautaires de Prescott-Russell, Michael Maidment of Ottawa Food Bank, and Brian Gilligan of Ottawa Community Housing.
By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario
This week’s meeting again had support from municipal, provincial and federal elected officials, including Marie France Lalonde, Member of Parliament for Orléans, and Jeremy Roberts, Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa West—Nepean. These officials have supported the table’s work for many weeks, providing resources where appropriate and elevating issues to the proper government channels to better address them.
As we take stock of what our table has accomplished in the past few months and plan ahead to shift into the “post-peak” phase of the pandemic, the role of these leaders will continue to evolve. They will continue to be critical in keeping the integral work of the community sector at the top of the public policy agenda.
Meeting urgent needs still requires a collaborative response
We know that many people are still experiencing COVID-19 as a crisis. While the province is preparing for Phase 2 of reopening, many across our region are still struggling to have their basic needs met: things like food, mental health services, or safe and reliable housing.
With the recommendations and requirements of non-medical masks on public transportation and other places where physical distancing is difficult, we know there are people who will have difficulty sourcing and buying their own masks. Those who are experiencing homelessness can’t always clean or store them safely, meaning they need disposable masks. For some, especially isolated seniors, buying online isn’t possible.
As part of our ongoing efforts to collaborate, last week, working with Ottawa Public Health, United Way launched our Facing Forward initiative to get masks into the hands of vulnerable people across our region—keeping us all safe in the process.
Assessing the continuum of care
In the same way we planned ahead before the virus arrived in our communities, the COVID-19 Community Response Table is now pivoting to assess how far we’ve come—while still responding to the immediate needs.
Representatives with different focuses in the community sector took time at our weekly meeting to share how their respective organizations have met the greatest needs facing our community, and reflected on what still needs to be done to move out of the crisis:
Accessing tools for tax preparation
- John Hoyles of 211 – Community Information Centre of Ottawa informed the group that while calls requesting information about basic needs like grocery deliveries and income supports are on the decline, a unique challenge has emerged: tax preparation and financial assistance. John highlighted the urgent need for tax support for callers, as many tax clinics have had to shut their doors due to COVID-19. Requests for financial education accounted for over 40% of 211’s unmet needs calls, as many callers are unsure of how long they can rely on building credit card debt, in the face of their unemployment.
Thanks to Table member and MP Marie-France Lalonde, John was able to connect 211 callers with the Free Virtual Tax Clinics provided by the Canada Revenue Agency. In addition, the Ottawa Public Library will be holding a virtual financial health clinic on June 9.
Increasing temperatures in social housing
- Ottawa Community Housing’s Brian Gilligan noted that although OCH has been able to help those struggling to pay rent over the past few months, rising temperatures prove to be the next hurdle. As air conditioning is not a mandatory requirement for community housing in the same way heating is, Community Housing coordinators are working to provide AC units and fans in communal lounges for seniors, young families, and others whose health relies on keeping cool.
An aging volunteer base
“Over 50 per cent of our volunteers are over the age of 70.”
- While grocery and pharmacy deliveries still continue in rural areas like Prescott-Russell, Sylvie Lefebvre of Services Communautaires de Prescott-Russell has noticed a drastic downturn of new volunteers, as many are scared to leave the safety of their own homes. Working collaboratively with other local organizations in her area, Sylvie notes that a centralized pool of volunteers in rural communities is essential so services like hers can continue to meet the basic needs of isolated seniors.
Planning for the end of government funding
- As the federal government will inevitably withdraw federal funding programs like the CERB, Ottawa Food Bank’s Michael Maidment is anticipating a sharp increase in clients, especially those using food banks for the first time. Working with researchers at York University, Food Banks Canada is studying the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis to assess trends, risks, and opportunities that may come with the post-peak phase of COVID-19.
The crisis requires us to move quickly
The social services sector has made many fast changes that have inadvertently improved service delivery, reached new people in need, and reduced redundancies. Part of our analysis of our work to date involves identifying what changes to our systems have been positive and are likely to stay even after the pandemic is over.
By reflecting on how far we’ve come, representatives at the COVID-19 Community Response Table took time at this week’s meeting to consider opportunities to strengthen and refine our crisis response strategies.
Offering the example of the 2016 Ontario Basic Income Pilot, our table discussed the impact a Universal Basic Income (UBI) would have on the lives of residents across East Ontario, and beyond.
The 2016 pilot program provided those living in low-income in Southern Ontario with an annual basic income of approximately $17,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples.
Reporting on the 2018 study completed at McMaster University, one CBC article noted that recipients of the UBI reported, “an improved diet, better housing security and less-frequent hospital visits… along with 66 per cent who said they formed better relationships with family members.”
From improved physical health to increased mental health, findings from the study concluded that the participants of the UBI pilot program faced fewer poor health outcomes, resulting in an overall better outlook on life.
Representatives at the table from the social sector noted that a basic income would not only reduce the dependency on social services for basic needs, it would also empower those living in poverty—offering them the agency to provide for themselves and their families.
Streamlining services to account for human dignity
As we’ve seen with COVID-19, the government stepped in to fund charities like the Ottawa Food Bank to account for more people needing food security. We also know that more than 70 per cent of Ottawa Food Bank’s clients are recipients of social assistance—two instances where the government is working to fill gaps without accounting for how they intersect with each other.
The community sector sees the effects and overlaps of these programs firsthand. Instead of funding food banks to fill the gap of food insecurity, our table suggested streamlining and enhancing social assistance so individuals can better provide for themselves and their families in the first place.
Collaborating with key players
By involving policy and change-makers like the elected officials present at our table, conversations about adaptation and innovation in our sector can help move the needle at different levels of government. Conversations that boldly reimagine policies like social assistance, and what impact that would have on the most vulnerable in our communities, were part of our vision when we first started the COVID-19 Community Response table.
Thoughtful leadership and community collaboration can propel our communities further than any one organization could achieve alone. Our work as a collective allows us to advocate for change where it’s needed, work together on systems change as a group, and collaborate with our colleagues in elected office to continue elevating these needs.
Rallying together to keep moving forward
The COVID-19 Community Response Table meetings have resulted in innovation, collaboration and quick problem-solving to help the most vulnerable with the unique struggles of COVID-19.
As we move into this “post-peak” phase, we must continue to evaluate our efforts, and commit to the same quality of response, knowing these issues will persist for many months to come.
When we work together, we can use our resources creatively and effectively to address the most pressing needs—now, and over the long term.
This is our mission.
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.