Staff at Guelph CHC pose with cellphones donated by Telus to help support outreach efforts and marginalized populations.

[Staff at Guelph CHC pose with phones donated via Telus with voice and data plans to help support marginalized people to be able to connect to the supports they need and stay safe during the COVID-19 response.]

“I couldn’t imagine what I would do if I didn’t have a connection to my supports right now,” said Chris Morton, an outreach worker with the primary care outreach team at Kitchener Downtown CHC.

It’s a sentiment that most of us can relate to. Now imagine, for a moment, not having access to a phone, or the internet, during the pandemic.

Morton, who works with people experiencing homelessness in Kitchener, says that early on in the pandemic response, outreach teams across the community began to notice they couldn’t connect with the people they were used to seeing. For outreach staff like Morton, not being able to be mobile and meet people in the usual locations, such as the public library or meal locations quickly became a barrier to supporting people.

“We quickly saw people’s wellbeing decline. We saw struggles with substance use increase because of isolation, while their mental health and wellbeing was negatively impacted.”

Morton didn’t despair or stand still, though. He said the outreach team at KDCHC started by identifying that they needed to prioritize access to phones. That’s when Morton reached out to Telus, and was referred to their #AllConnectedForGood program.

“I explained who we are and what we do, and detailed our request for support through technology to support the people we’ve been connected to and serving for many years in the community.”

Telus responded with a donation that Morton said will help their clients, but which has also been able to support other organizations doing similar work in the area. The donation included smartphones and $0 talk and data plans to help get people connect during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This has been a community-wide initiative, and goes far beyond us,” he said. “We’ve been able to get phones out to other people who are also doing this type of outreach work, so it’s been a community-wide effort to ensure people are getting connected to the supports they need.”

In fact, the Telus donation via Morton has been able to support people who use Consumption and Treatment Services, as well as other people who are isolated or served by outreach programs across Ontario -- at centres such as South Riverdale CHC, NorWest CHC, Sandy Hill CHC, Windsor Essex CHC, Regent Park CHC, Somerset West CHC, Guelph CHC, Carea CHC and Street Health in Toronto.

Staff at South Riverdale CHC, in fact, have now launched their own #DeviceDrive, aiming to meet even more technology and connection needs being faced by the people they serve and the wider community.

While the need is still great, the recognition of this gap by Telus, and its generous donation, helps to highlight the areas that need action. As Telus announced its nationwide commitment to deliver 10,000 phones to isolated seniors and other vulnerable people during COVID-19, Alliance CEO Adrianna Tetley thanked the telco giant while focusing on the digital access barriers people face, in a time when so many health and social services are dependent on users having devices and high-speed internet connections.

“COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge, especially for people experiencing homelessness, those who use drugs, and other marginalized and isolated people,” said Adrianna Tetley, CEO of Alliance for Healthier Communities, Ontario. “We must remember that the digital equity divide is real. This donation of phones and data plans demonstrates the lifeline technology can provide between the people who need our help the most right now and the community health providers who’ve built trust with them.”

[Kitchener Downtown CHC outreach worker Chris Morton holds up one of the phones donated by Telus to help marginalized people connect to supports and resources during COVID-19. The help for communities that Morton got started from Telus has gone well beyond Kitchener, reaching people supported by CHCs across Ontario.]