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Community Update: Reaching at-risk youth when they need us most


It has been more than a month since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Ottawa. Hundreds are fighting the disease, and the rest of us are working hard to keep our neighbours safe by physical distancing, and following the guidance of our public health authorities.

While these measures are helping to flatten the curve of COVID-19 across Canada, many vulnerable people could not, and cannot, afford to adequately prepare for how the pandemic is affecting themselves and their family.

The social challenges people face on a regular basis have not gone away because of COVID-19. In fact, in many cases, things have gotten much, much worse.

For many weeks 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.

Physical distancing is difficult, and it is perhaps most difficult for young people. Youth have been stripped of their social connections, at a time when relationships are of utmost importance to their personal development, well-being, and sense of self. They are disconnected from their mentors, teachers, role-models and friends. Some are living in poverty without access to their education and peers because they don’t have a computer. 

Attendees at the weekly response table meeting, including representatives from: Ottawa Food Bank, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ottawa, Interval House Ottawa, Ruckify, Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre, Education Foundation of Ottawa, and others

This week, our table met again to discuss the specific challenges youth are experiencing and how we can work together to find creative solutions to those problems.

Disparities are even greater under COVID-19

For those of us who are safe in our homes, it’s hard to imagine the heightened fear homeless youth are experiencing right now. With public buildings and city services closed, young people can’t even access basic facilities like bathrooms. Without a safe place to call home, youth are incapable of self-isolating – putting themselves and others at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. 

All this means youth who were forced to leave their homes are putting themselves into dangerous situations in order to have a place to sleep at night. Our closed doors mean their lives are even more at risk.

We are also particularly attuned to other challenges at-risk youth may be facing:

  • Not having the equipment or internet capabilities to complete schoolwork, with a higher risk of youth in poverty falling behind and perpetuating the cycle of inequality. These issues are more difficult to address in rural areas 
  • Many kids rely on in-school breakfast programs and after-school programs for snacks and meals
  • 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

Rallying together

Earlier this week, United Way East Ontario and the Ottawa Community Foundation (OCF) jointly partnered with Interval House Ottawa to support kids who are living in their shelter for women fleeing violence. Together, UWEO and OCF are able to ensure these families have adequate food and their basic needs are met. We’ve also pooled our resources to make sure kids have access to laptops so they can continue attending school, and not risk falling behind. This technology also helps Interval House staff maintain physical distance while still delivering vital services to survivors like mental health counselling and crisis supports.

Our partnership with Ruckify means more than a hundred laptops, cellphones, tablets and webcams have been delivered to frontline agencies across Ottawa. Organizations like Youth Services Bureau and Operation Come Home now have the technology they need to reach homeless youth while keeping staff and volunteers safe and healthy. 

With so many engaged partners who are laser-focused on a common goal, we are able to respond quickly to the needs as we identify them. Right now, in the thick of this crisis, we need to ensure youth have uninterrupted access to services that are a lifeline for them. 

Things are financially difficult for so many people right now. But, when we work together, we can use our resources creatively and effectively to address the most pressing needs. 

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




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