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.
At Friday’s meeting, we were joined by 70+ representatives from community organizations, and elected officials from all levels of government, including Jenna Sudds, Chair of the Community and Protective Services Committee with the City of Ottawa. As we move out of the crisis phase and start planning for recovery, the role of these leaders will evolve, but they will still be critical in keeping this work at the top of the agenda in their respective areas of work.
By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario
There are still urgent needs that require our collaborative response
Many people are still experiencing the effects of COVID-19 as a crisis: seniors and others still have difficulty accessing food and basic needs, mental health needs are increasing, many women and their families are experiencing violence at home without connection to services—the list goes on.
Typically, municipal facilities and businesses with air conditioning would provide respite to people who don’t have cooling systems in their homes during the summer months. In absence of these places and as temperatures rapidly rise, we know seniors, young children, families in crowded housing and people with disabilities are in need of portable air conditioners and fans to make their homes safe and comfortable. With Ottawa Public Health, Ruckify and many local social service agencies, United Way is working to meet that need.
Additionally, United Way is working with Ottawa Public Health on a strategy to get personal protective equipment into the hands of the most vulnerable as services start reopening.
Now that health authorities are recommending wearing non-medical masks in stores and other places where physical distancing is difficult, we know there are people who will have difficulty sourcing and buying their own masks. We will support people experiencing homelessness with disposable PPE, and provide reusable masks to people living in poverty, seniors, and others who can’t purchase their own.
Measuring our impact
United Way’s promise is to invest resources where they are needed most and will have the greatest impact. To live into this commitment, we consistently measure our efforts against what we hope to achieve. While we have never faced a challenge as complex and widespread as COVID-19 before, we are still committed to measuring our impact on the people who have needed us most throughout this crisis.
Together with our partners at the Community Response Table, we have started collecting the answers to some important questions: How well did we identify the critical needs and our required response? What was the impact for the people we intended to help? What would have happened if we weren’t there to respond? What risks and gaps will appear in the recovery phase? How will we address those risks?
We know the answers to these questions will be significant in influencing our response over the long term, and to make sure we are constantly striving for the best possible outcomes.
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.
Crisis requires us to move quickly. As a result, we’ve made many changes to our services that have inadvertently improved service delivery, reached new people in need, and reduced redundancies. Part of our analysis will also involve taking stock of what changes to our systems have been positive, and are likely to stay even after the pandemic is over.
Rallying together for the future
In the same way we planned ahead before the virus arrived in our communities, the Community Response Table is also planning ahead to what recovery looks like—while still responding to the immediate needs. Representatives with different focuses in the community sector took time at our weekly meeting to share how they plan to move out of crisis, and into recovery:
Supporting the most vulnerable youth
- Youth Services Bureau’s Mike Wade spoke about how many of their services had to ramp down and decrease capacity in the first weeks of the pandemic for safety reasons. Now, their agency is looking at how they can return to previous service levels while prioritizing safety for its staff and clients.
“In our phased reopening we’re identifying what services we can reopen, what physical distancing and safe space looks like, providing safety protocols, and changes to hours of operation and communications.”
Empowering volunteers over the long term
- Volunteer Ottawa’s Marie Eveline notes that the future for many charitable organizations will see an increased need for volunteers. With staff laid off and funding restrictions to continue as physical distancing measures are still in place, volunteers will likely be needed to fill service gaps across the community.
Helping isolated seniors
- Jennifer Lalonde of Ottawa West Community Support and chair of the Champlain Community Support Network spoke about how agencies that serve seniors and people with disabilities across the region are looking to better equip seniors with technology, so they aren’t so socially isolated as the pandemic persists. Additionally, since seniors are at high-risk of negative outcomes from COVID-19, many are rightfully still afraid to leave their homes, without a plan to manage that going forward. As a group, maintaining that virtual outreach is critical to keeping isolated seniors healthy.
Ensuring people have continued access to basic needs
- Michael Maidment of the Ottawa Food Bank (OFB) reiterated how critical the need for food has been since the beginning of COVID-19, coupled with a 90% decrease in donations of food at grocery stores. OFB is using financial modeling from the 2008 financial crisis to help predict how their service delivery will need to continue over the long term, including anticipating that, when federal financial programs dry up before the economy is back to normal, even more people will be in need of food.
Looking back, moving forward
The past 10 meetings with the COVID-19 Community Response Table 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 next phase, we must evaluate our efforts so far, 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.