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Setting East Ontario’s most vulnerable residents on a positive post-pandemic path

5 MIN READ

United Way East Ontario has recommended key areas the Government of Ontario should focus its 2022 budget on, to ensure residents come out of the COVID-19 pandemic with hope and opportunity. 

Ontarians continue to experience hardship as the pandemic continues and we recognize that many equity-seeking groups are being impacted disproportionately.  

In the weeks before COVID-19 reached our local communities, back in 2020, United Way gathered a variety of stakeholders from different sectors at the COVID-19 Community Response Table, to support the most vulnerable people across Ottawa and the counties of Prescott-Russell, Lanark and Renfrew. We have listened to our residents, our partners, and people with lived experiences over the last two years and have reviewed and updated our focus to address the most pressing needs in our communities. 

As Ontario moves toward an endemic response to COVID-19, we are turning our attention to the underlying chronic social issues that have been amplified by the effects of the pandemic among vulnerable populations. Our goal is to leverage the innovation of the past two years to make systemic changes that would reduce vulnerabilities and bolster community resiliency over the long-term. 

By Preeti Prabhu
Senior Director of Public Policy, Government and Stakeholder Relations, United Way East Ontario

Based on our ongoing research, as well as consultation with our community and subject matter experts, United Way proposes investment and action in the following areas in 2022: 

  • Affordable Housing 
  • Rural Communities 
  • Learning Loss Prevention and Reconstructing Learning Pathways 
  • Sector Capacity: Mental Health and Gender-Based Violence 
  • Equitable Economic Recovery 
  • Informal Caregiver Support 

Affordable Housing 

Ontarians have a right to access safe, secure, and adequate housing. Home prices in Renfrew County rose 36.8 per cent between December 2020 and December 2021. The lack of affordable rental properties in the county has displaced residents or pushing them to homelessness.  

As stated in the Rural Ontario Municipal Association’s “Opportunities for Rural Ontario in a Post-COVID World” report, we must bridge housing affordability and availability by providing a full spectrum of housing options, including affordable rentals. Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa is working with a diverse coalition of about 100 local social services partners, hospitals and others on a nonpartisan housing-focused campaign called ‘Start with Home’ to set a collective vision and develop an affordable housing strategy in Ottawa.

Housing (including energy costs) must be truly affordable, especially for seniors and those living below the low income cut off (LICO) in our communities.  

In our open letter, in advance of the provincial-municipal housing summit, we highlighted that the affordable housing crisis converges with broader social and structural inequities that contribute to deeply rooted opportunity gaps in the province. 

Rural Communities 

Residents living in East Ontario’s rural communities are experiencing isolation, and difficulty accessing basic services such as food and transportation, as the pandemic continues. One in seven households in Eastern Ontario are food insecure. 

We recommend critical investments to improve food distribution to rural residents with limited mobility; to strengthen the capacity of local businesses and the agri-food sector, to find affordable and sustainable solutions for food deserts; and to improvemobility through the provision of affordable and reliable transportation services. 

Learning Loss Prevention and Reconstructing Learning Pathways 

After witnessing the effects of classroom disruptions and remote learning on learning loss, as well as childhood social development, UWEO is calling on Ontario to invest in evidence-based after-school programs to re-engage children in learning and develop their social well-being. 

The province needs to provide school boards with incentives to share disaggregated, identity-based data to locate and remove systemic barriers. Back-to-school support calls for a holistic approach. 

Sector Capacity 

The nonprofit sector in Ontario has demonstrated its resilience and adaptability but is over stressed and needs financial investment. Charities are reporting a decline in staff’s ability to prevent their own burnout. In February, this issue was compounded for local partners in Ottawa that work in the occupied area of the trucker convoy or with clientele impacted.  

Mental Health Care Sector Capacity 

There will be long term mental health repercussions for children, youth and adults who have experienced extended periods of isolation and are reporting poor mental health outcomes as a result of the pandemic. Drug use rates have soared; the number of opioid overdose ER visits have consistently remained above the number of visits pre-pandemic. 

UWEO is calling on the provincial government to invest in staff capacity, including pay equity as well as technical and operational infrastructure for nonprofit-driven care services for long-term and sustainable recovery, including responses to mental health crisis calls.   

UWEO has recently invested in virtual care services – like Counselling Connect – as well as targeted mental health services for Indigenous and African, Caribbean and Black communities. We recommend investing in culturally appropriate services and strengthening the sector to use both in-person and virtual care services to combat long waitlists for mental health services that pre-existed the pandemic.  

Capacity for Gender-Based Violence Supports 

Calls to shelters have also surged, femicide is on the rise since 2019; there has been an uptake of women support services, and many shelters have had to use hotels for their overflow. Meanwhile, one in five shelters report not receiving funding increases in over 10 years. Shelters are experiencing staff shortages, and the resources to properly equip their staff.    

This is why UWEO is calling for investments in infrastructure, affordable housing strategies and staffing resources, including investing in staff expertise to administer shelters and support services for people fleeing gender violence. 

Equitable Economic Recovery 

COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect the financial wellbeing and employment of Indigenous people, vulnerable women, youth, newcomers, racialized communities, and people with disabilities.  

Investing in an equitable approach to economic recovery should include tactics such as incentivizing the implementation of social procurement policies in government departments and the private sector; providing capacity building support to social enterprises; and promoting local businesses.  

Informal Caregiver Support 

Caregivers continue to experience high levels of burnout 

United Way East Ontario is calling on the Government of Ontario to advocate for and promote proactive strategies that improve and protect caregiver wellness over the long-term.  

We want to see the province develop and promote financial programs and resources that support caregivers in their roles and responsibilities. 

The government should advocate for employment protection and tax relief programs to offset costs associated with informal caregiving.  

It should also enable a home-health human resource strategy.  

In Conclusion 

Two years into the pandemic, we see the nonprofit sector running over capacity to manage an ever-increasing demand for services in our communities.  

A weeks-long occupation of downtown Ottawa has only exacerbated capacity issues in the social service sector. Our partners are exhausted, and their resources are strained as they tend to vulnerable residents in isolation and who are dealing with heightened levels of stress, anxiety and trauma being brought to the doorsteps of their homes and shelters. 

The priorities listed above are a summarization of trends observed in our region backed by lived experiences and available data sources. UWEO and its partners can provide additional context and evidence that speaks to the critical needs and potential solutions for the greatest impact.  

We know that no single sector or level of government can tackle tough, systemic issues like those outlined above on their own. United Way East Ontario is grateful for the ability to work with all levels of government and elected officials from all parties to move the needle on issues that continue to affect our communities.  

We call on the Government of Ontario to implement a budget centered around the above priorities, recognizing they each have strong potential to increase quality of life for thousands of Ontarians during a time of ongoing hardship, and over the long term. 

For more information on United Way East Ontario’s provincial budget proposal, please contact our Senior Director of Public Policy, Government and Stakeholder Relations Preeti Prabhu at pprabhu@unitedwayeo.ca.  

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