Since the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 began to affect our communities more than three months ago, the challenges that many people face on a regular basis have gotten worse. As a community, we have had to seek out new, innovative approaches to keep the most vulnerable people from falling through the cracks during this unprecedented time.
People whose financial situations were precarious before COVID-19 are now at greater risk of facing poor outcomes. Additionally, there is a growing number of people experiencing financial difficulties after job losses related to the pandemic.
As communities across our region begin to stabilize,the social services sector is planning a more prosperous future for the vulnerable populations that are often left behind.
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 to support at-risk groups through the effects of COVID-19 on our communities.
By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario
On Friday, at our weekly COVID-19 Community Response table, attendees heard from several community sector leaders: Marino Francispillai of Ottawa Public Health, Dianne Urquhart of the Social Planning Council of Ottawa, Adam Haga of the AffordAbility Fund Trust pilot program, Linda Simpson of Performance Plus Rehabilitative Care and the Employment Accessibility Resource Network, Ramsey Hart of The Table Community Food Centre, and George Brown of Integral North. They shared insights on how we can address financial inequities when we plan for economic recovery after the pandemic.
The table also included supportive attendees from municipal, provincial and federal governments, including Marie-France Lalonde, MP for Orléans and Jeremy Roberts, Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa West—Nepean. These officials are avid listeners at the table, and will play a key role in bringing our sector’s challenges, successes and concerns to higher levels for policy consideration and change.
Financial precarity before, during and after the pandemic
Drawing on data from the Neighbourhood Equity Index (NEI), Dianne Urquhart showed that women, people with Aboriginal identity, recent immigrants, visible minority populations like Black and Arab people, and people with disabilities are all more likely to live in low-income situations.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these low-income circumstances made it more difficult for the above groups to prepare for, cope with, and recover from COVID-19 and its social effects.
Specifically, in neighbourhoods and communities where there are fewer job opportunities—and where housing is not affordable for the people that live there—COVID-19 has had more detrimental effects. These inequities will also make it harder for those neighbourhoods to recover financially.
An untapped talent pool
Prior to COVID-19, one in six people with disabilities lived below the poverty line. Despite being eager to work, people with disabilities are often overlooked in hiring processes. With physical distancing measures, many of Linda Simpson’s clients at Performance Plus Rehabilitative Care either lost their job, weren’t able to start a new job, or can’t work because their disability requires them to self-isolate for medical safety.
People with disabilities have also been accepting high-risk jobs in order to support their families through the pandemic, entrepreneurs have no additional income to support their livelihoods, and there has been an increase in mental health and anxiety challenges among this group.
The “epidemic of evictions”
For people living in low-income situations, or those who have steady jobs but work paycheque to paycheque, any further economic disruptions could put them in even more dire situations. With the impending end of the CERB payments to Canadians, partners at the table are concerned about a growing number of people who will be unable to buy food or pay their bills and rent.
Partners recognize that now is an important moment to advocate for financial protections for people before it’s too late.
Opposition to Bill 184 in Ontario, a bill which has the potential to make it easier for landlords to evict tenants, is one step in protecting tenants who live in financially precarious situations—both now, and after COVID-19.
The group again discussed the value of a government-funded universal basic income to prevent strain on social services and stimulate the economy after the CERB ends. Dianne noted that times of severe economic disruption, like the moment we are currently in, present the opportunity for governments to make big stabilization investments. A guaranteed income would reduce poverty and also promote spending at local businesses to reboot the economy.
Without a social safety net, many people risk falling through the cracks—reversing much of the progress that has been made to build stronger, healthier communities.
Creative planning for economic recovery
Often, focusing on prosperity for the economy at a high-level is seen as competing with the concept of lifting up those who face inequities. With thoughtfulness and creativity, the two can be complementary and can happen at the same time.
Buying local, social innovation, social finance, and other innovative approaches from the community sector can be helpful levers to ensure marginalized groups can come out of financial precarity as time passes through the pandemic. Here are some strategies partners discussed at the table:
- A helping hand for energy bills and beyond
The number of people relying on government and community support during the pandemic has drastically increased. For the first time in their lives, many people are facing food insecurity, increased household costs, and financial instability.
The AffordAbility Fund Trust (AFT) is a provincial energy program that provides households with the opportunity to apply for free energy upgrades that can lower overall home energy use and electricity bills—something that has become increasingly important as people spend more time at home and use more energy.
The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre, and the Nepean, Rideau and Osgoode Community Resource Centre (NROCRC) host outreach coordinators with the AFT, to provide support and information about energy conservation and financial assistance programs to the people who need it most. By understanding the needs and pressures in a person’s life that has led to their inability to afford their bills and home upgrades, those coordinators can also connect people in with other community services to improve their overall wellbeing.
- Digital access as a lifeline
Dianne Urquhart noted that reliable digital access has been a pivot point for improving outcomes for people living in low-income. Many industries have shown that remote work is possible, but this requires access to technology and reliable connectivity. Increasing internet access in rural communities and connecting vulnerable populations with appropriate technology could increase labour capability for many at-risk groups.
For several years, Performance Plus Rehabilitative Care (PPRC) has kept their clients connected by providing them with refurbished technology—allowing them to learn and work remotely. In the context of COVID-19, Linda said PPRC has been thinking about the future of work and what the labour market will look like in the post-peak phase of the pandemic. PPRC is working with clients to build their soft skills through online training courses, equipping them to be appealing to hiring managers.
- Local food for local good
The Table Community Food Centre has recently created a “Good Food” box-type program. The Fresh Food Box is a cost-recovery initiative for the Centre that provides healthy, local produce to people at reduced prices.
The contents of the boxes are always sourced locally, ensuring the benefits of the program stay close to the community. Ramsey Hart has noticed that they have seen a bigger spike in usage of this program during COVID-19 compared to their typical food bank service—indicating that people who have never used a food bank before may be more open to paying an affordable rate for good food than to simply receive it through charitable means.
- Community benefit agreements and social finance
Community benefit agreements are legally-binding contracts that require developers to commit to some level of community investment as they undertake infrastructure projects. Examples include commitments to certain percentages of affordable housing in new builds; hiring requirements for underrepresented groups like Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), women and people with disabilities; and prioritizing local vendors for building supplies, etc.
As the federal government plans to invest more than $187 billion in infrastructure spending to stimulate economic recovery from COVID-19, George Brown talked about how local, provincial and national groups are calling for community benefit agreements to be a mandatory part of planning for these projects.
Community benefit agreements make it clear that economic recovery initiatives can prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable, address health and social inequities, and close the hiring gaps for underemployed groups.
The path ahead
Our work at the COVID-19 Community Response Table aims to construct a profile of how the pandemic is affecting the most vulnerable people in our communities, supported by real-time data and stories of lived experiences. By pinpointing areas that demand our attention, we can recommend programs, partnerships, and policy changes to guarantee a stronger future for everyone.
Financial precarity creates heightened risks for many individuals. Without proper responses in place for the recovery, many people will fall into even worse circumstances as time passes.
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.