Thunder Bay and Wellington County are hundreds of kilometres apart, but came together with shared goals and similar ideas about how to support their communities during an unprecedented crisis.
The rapid shift to virtual services across all sectors during the pandemic highlighted the necessity of reliable access to the internet and to digital devices. This shift also revealed the existence of a digital divide in our communities – the gap between those who can access and use information and communication technologies in their daily lives and people who cannot. With essential supports such as medical appointments, court hearings, and training programmes shifting to hybrid or virtual delivery, the need to address digital equity in our communities quickly became a clear imperative.
"The onset of the global pandemic closed many of the public spaces our clients relied on for access to computers, internet connections and public phones," shares Dunja Lukic, Social Planning and Policy Analyst at the County of Wellington Ontario Works (OW). The impacts were similar farther north. "We knew that COVID impacted clients’ access to services based on their own healthcare needs, and that there were limited resources available to them. Technology was a real barrier to participation," adds Michelle Wojciechowski, Manager of Intake and Eligibility at the District of Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board (TBDSSAB). There was a clear need to act to ensure clients could connect with their formal and informal support networks, so Thunder Bay and Wellington got to work.
In 2020, TBDSSAB partnered with local community organizations to give cell phones to those most isolated during the early months of the pandemic. TBDSSAB distributed phones to its service recipients and became part of a community-wide effort to help low-income households stay connected to services. After hearing about Thunder Bay’s successful digital device program rollout at the OMSSA Exchange in spring of 2021, County of Wellington Ontario Works connected with TBDSSAB to start a conversation about how a similar program could be implemented for Ontario Works clients in Wellington County and the City of Guelph. Digital equity programs were in the planning stages in Wellington and TBDSSAB was actively delivering digital device programs for clients at the time, so the two teams connected. Though geographically distant, the two areas had some similarities in caseload and geographic disparities across their service areas, as well as shared program goals and approaches to service delivery. Thunder Bay assisted Wellington with developing program policies, documents, and program evaluation tools, and the two teams shared questions, successes and lessons learned along the way.
The availability of provincial pandemic-related funding, and more room in administrative budgets due to suspended services and programs meant that funding could be accessed to meet urgent digital equity needs. TBDSSAB approached local network provider Tbaytel to purchase phones and plans with Social Services Relief Funding for OW and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) clients, as well as Housing tenants. County of Wellington Ontario Works initially partnered with four community organizations through a United Way grant to distribute phones to clients of participating community agencies. County of Wellington Ontario Works contributed to the pool of funding available for community agencies, but supported OW clients specifically through dedicated funding through existing Employment Services administrative budget allocations.
Phones were distributed to help clients meet their employment and life stabilization goals, and to enable connection with sources of formal and informal support. Many of the clients served through these programs required phones for access to medical and mental health supports, searching for employment and housing, or to ensure safety for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. To date, 240 phones have been distributed across the TBDSSAB service area, and more than 300 phones have been distributed to OW clients across Wellington County and the City of Guelph.
TBDSSAB and Wellington also implemented device lending programs to enable clients to borrow devices on longer-term loans to support wellbeing as well as educational and employment-related goals. Laptops and internet hotspots are available to Ontario Works and Settlement Services clients at the County of Wellington. A partnership with the local library network enables clients living in the rural townships to pick up and return their devices at any County of Wellington library branch. TBDSSAB also offers laptop loans to clients, and those active in employment activities requiring the use of a computer are able to access laptops with data plans while on a waitlist for their own refurbished device through Renewed Computer Technology.
While access to devices and internet connectivity is something many of us take for granted, program evaluation results from both TBDSSAB and Wellington confirm the impact these digital equity programs have had on the lives of the people we serve. Through surveys conducted with program participants, the majority indicated that having a phone increased their quality of life significantly. Participants noted multiple positive life changes as a result of participating in the phone and/or device lending programs, including being more connected with support networks, increased ability to seek and retain employment, feeling a greater sense of safety, and increased ability to get help when needed. Staff in Wellington also noted that the digital equity programs enabled them to reach clients more easily, reducing the number of case suspensions required pending contact.
While the laptop lending program continues, TBDSSAB wrapped up their phone program, continuing to support a small number of clients with the ongoing costs of a phone plan. "We worked with our provider to support those participants who wished to keep their phones and enter into a new contract with Tbaytel when our program ended," notes Michelle. "Clients were able to keep the device and the same phone number, but had to open an account in their own name. We identified a few clients for whom the phone program was a critical lifeline, and we are able to continue to provide ongoing support based on their needs."
With Employment Services Transformation set to be fully implemented in Wellington by January of next year, the future of Wellington’s digital equity programs is uncertain. "The sustainability of our phone and device lending programs will depend largely on our administrative budget and the EST participation framework," says Dunja. "There is definitely a heightened need for advocacy to ensure more accessible and affordable digital access for all. We are working with a number of other local organizations as part of the Guelph-Wellington Digital Equity Coalition on advocacy, digital literacy and access to devices for those in our community who are most impacted by the digital divide."
For further reading on Wellington's digital equity programmes, please see: Wellington County closing digital divide through ‘get connected’ initiative
Blog categories: Digital Divide, Digital Equity, Ontario Works, ODSP, Human Services Delivery, County of Wellington, District of Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board