British Columbia

B.C. giving 3,500 smartphones to people on the street for COVID-19 information, connectivity

The B.C. government says it is in the process of putting thousands of smartphones into the hands of some of B.C.'s most vulnerable people to help ensure everyone is informed about proper health guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Library closures have made it hard for people experiencing homelessness to access services via internet

One of the smartphones given to vulnerable and 'digitally disconnected' people in St. John's, Nfld. (Stella's Circle)

The B.C. government says it is in the process of putting thousands of smartphones into the hands of some of B.C.'s most vulnerable people to help ensure everyone is informed about proper health guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The province has partnered with a number of non-profit organizations and 7-Eleven to secure 3,500 smartphones, 200 of which have already been handed out to those previously living in Vancouver's Oppenheimer park, and Victoria's Pandora Avenue and Topaz Park homeless encampments, according to a statement from the province Tuesday.

"Providing smartphones for people on the street will help create easier access to [social and health] services, help people maintain physical distancing, and support people in staying connected to family and friends during this time," said Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson.  

The province said it hopes the phones, which come Wi-Fi-enabled and loaded with $10 worth of data, will improve access to medication, safe drug supply delivery, and virtual doctor meetings.

"For people who are experiencing homelessness, the closing of public spaces like libraries due to COVID-19 has reduced [Internet] connectivity options and created barriers to supports and services,"  said Simpson.

An unmet need

Lorraine Copas, executive director of the Social Planning and Research Council of B.C., said access to basic communication plays a central role in how people practise physical distancing that is required during the pandemic.

"This was a hugely important need that was going unmet," Copas said. "If you want people to stay safe and stay in their homes, then they have to have a way to communicate whether that's with their worker, their family or friends [and] without that phone, it's impossible."  

Copas says she's had people reach out from across the province, including youth in care, people with mental health challenges, or women fleeing domestic violence. 

She says the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up a conversation around the importance of internet access and a phone. 

"You realize how critical it is for people who are on the margins and who have been pushed aside," she said. 

To date, 1,000 have already been handed out, with the additional 2,500 smartphones going out to organizations and community response networks throughout the province.

Listen to the interview with Lorraine Copas on CBC's On The Coast:

May 12, 2020 Most government COVID-19 supports are most easily accessible online. But some people have no access. So the province is handing out 3500 cell phones. Lorraine Copas is the Executive Director of the Social Planning and Research Council of BC. 7:54

With files from On The Coast

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