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Community Update: Forging a path forward


On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In Ontario, the government is starting to look at the first phases of reopening businesses after two months of closures and physical distancing. 

We’ve come a long way, but we still have far to go.

Since late February, 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.

What we have seen so far, is that the social challenges people face on a regular basis have not gone away because of COVID-19. Many of the most vulnerable people in our communities are even more at-risk under physical distancing and the pressures of the pandemic.

Michael Allen

By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario

This pandemic has completely changed how the community sector operates. 

Organizations have had to reinvent the way they reach clients. Frontline agencies are experiencing never-before-seen levels of demand for their services, and new and complicated barriers in the way of reaching the people most in need.

As a group, we’ve been doing our best to work together so no one falls through the cracks—to make sure we don’t duplicate our efforts, to share expertise to lift others up, and to combine our resources to have a greater impact for people in need. Our weekly table meetings have been instrumental in empowering this collaboration. 

And what we have consistently seen from all partners at the table, since before the pandemic even arrived in our community, is an unwavering commitment to the people who need us. We never asked “should we close our doors,” but always “how do we stay open?” 

As communities across Canada start to consider moving into the “post-peak” of the COVID-10 crisis, we thought it would be appropriate to look back on the work we’ve accomplished as a group to date. 

The word “unprecedented” gets thrown around often, but our community has never experienced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic before. There is no amount of planning that could have prepared us for how it would affect our social fabric, vulnerable populations, and our ability to plan for the future. 

Over the past weeks, we have explored how different subsets of our population are affected by COVID-19, what risks they are facing, and how we can creatively address those challenges. 

Often, those challenges were crushing to hear. 

  • We know that, in violent homes, tension is likely to be even higher when families are cooped up together. Without connections to other trusted adults, many kids might not be reaching out for the help they need, and no one is there to see the warning signs of danger. 
  • Similarly, physical distancing means women experiencing domestic violence have no connections to their networks and daily social interactions to reach out to for help. 
  • Over time, the needs people are experiencing have become more complex. Calls to information lines like 211 take longer now than they did at the beginning of March, and those calls often include more than one problem to address. 
  • We also have seen a spike in the number of people who need food and financial support—basic needs— to survive in their homes. 
  • Newcomers—refugees in particular—often experience language barriers that prevent them from accessing services and resources that have become all the more critical under COVID-19.
  • Homeless youth, people living on a low income, rural families, newcomer families and many others have had difficulty obtaining the technology they need to stay connected to social services, family, and friends through physical distancing requirements. 

Luckily, our partners at the Community Response Table move quickly and are not afraid to tackle the tough challenges. With funds and resources flowing in from the federal government, generous donors and corporate partners, United Way East Ontario and other funders like the City of Ottawa, Ottawa Community Foundation and others have been able to invest quickly to support seniors, volunteer organizations, mental health crisis lines, survivors of violence, people experiencing homelessness, and many others. 

“I am in awe of this table. Having 75 plus individuals working around the same mandate is amazing.”

Although the challenges we’ve seen so far through COVID-19 are devastating, we know the path forward will test us in new and even more demanding ways. 

We haven’t yet reached the recovery phase of COVID-19—in fact, so many are still in crisis. But in the same way we did our best to plan for the arrival of the pandemic in our communities, we are now starting to think about what it will look like to support community agencies and the most vulnerable as the pandemic slowly winds down over the coming months. 

In the past two months, we’ve made bold moves as a community—changes that were unimaginable before COVID-19. The charitable sector has done more to adapt in the past two months than we ever could have anticipated. But we can’t stop now. 

  • We know the return to workplaces will mean increased anxiety for people in all sectors. Particularly for those who work on the frontlines, we must find ways of protecting staff, volunteers, and clients from the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 infections. 
  • Charities have to continue to find new ways of fundraising and collaborating in the absence of public events, galas, etc. We rely on our donor’s generosity to get us through the long term, not just for the crisis phase. 
  • Many jobs will not return. This means more people will be in need of social services over the long-term, there will be fewer philanthropic dollars to support those services, and even more strain on our systems.
  • In order to continue remotely reaching the most vulnerable while the virus still circulates in our community, we have to look holistically at issues of access to technology and connectivity for low-income families and individuals, rural communities, and people who don’t have a fixed address.
  • We must look critically at the new tools we’ve put in place to see what services have actually improved. Many of these innovations can and should stay as part of the way our community operates. 

“This world that we’re moving into is not going to change. We’re moving to a whole new way of working, of living and thinking, and we need to think about sustainability. The only way of doing that is through systems transformation and working collectively.”

If we are going to continue helping those who need us, we must do so together. 

With so many engaged partners who are laser-focused on a common goal, we have been able to respond quickly to the needs as we identify them. If we continue working together in this same way, we can break down the systems that have hindered us, we can pool our resources and skills to make a greater impact, and we can weather the storm of COVID-19’s fallout. 

This is our mission, and we are in this together, for the long run.

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




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