BC providing smartphones to homeless during pandemic

May 12 2020, 1:27 pm

The BC government said it is helping to provide smartphones to those who are homeless and in vulnerable situations so they can better access the services they need, during the coronavirus pandemic.

In making the announcement this week, Minister of Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson said “the  need for internet connectivity has never been as important as it is right now.”

For people experiencing homelessness, “the closing of public spaces like libraries due to COVID-19 has reduced connectivity options and created barriers to supports and services,” he said. “Providing smartphones for people on the street will help create easier access to those services, help people maintain physical distancing, and support people in staying connected to family and friends during this time.”

The province said that through the Homelessness Community Action Grant program and a partnership with 7-Eleven, the Social Planning and Research Council of BC (SPARC BC) has been able to secure 3,500 smartphones to be distributed by community organizations who provide services and support for vulnerable people. The smartphones can connect to Wi-Fi and include a pre-loaded $10 7-Eleven data card.

To date, 1,000 smartphones have been distributed, 200 of which will help “ensure that people who transitioned from Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver and are transitioning from Pandora Avenue and Topaz Park encampments in Victoria have access to basic communication and the connections they need as they move into safer temporary accommodations,” the province said.

SPARC BC will distribute the additional 2,500 smartphones to organizations and community response networks throughout the province.

“Access to basic communication plays a central role in how individuals are able to practise the physical distancing needed under COVID-19,” said Lorraine Copas, executive director, SPARC BC. “Through our partnerships with communities, it became clear that this was a gap in the system – a gap that we were able to fill in partnership with 7-Eleven, who helped us to secure the smartphones at cost.”

The Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative received 500 of the smartphones for low-income residents living in one of the 4,500 single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel units in the area. Through DTES Response and Central City Foundation, many of these smartphones have been paired with SIM cards donated by TELUS to provide $0 rate plans including unlimited nationwide talk and text and three GB of data per month.

In addition to these smartphones, Wi-Fi providers have opened up their existing Wi-Fi networks to the public, including in the Downtown Eastside, to better connect vulnerable people with support.

“These smartphones are lifelines and a long-term asset for people living in the Downtown Eastside and SROs,” said Wendy Pedersen, coordinator of the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative. “With the smartphones, we are also able to co-ordinate the drop-off of thousands of bars of soap, food and hygiene supplies to people and connect with people about COVID-19 symptoms and testing.”

In June 2019, the province provided SPARC BC with $6 million for the Homelessness Community Action Grant program. To date, 53 grants for a total of $1,648,000 have been issued with the average grant amount of $31,094.