Nfld. & Labrador

At Stella's Circle, mobile phones and smart TVs aren't luxuries — they're lifelines

Some of the most vulnerable people in St. John’s who "are isolated at the best of times" have a new way to stay connected during the pandemic, Zach Goudie writes.

Charitable foundation providing clients with increased access to technology

Some of the most vulnerable people in St. John's have a new way to stay connected during the pandemic.

Stella's Circle is providing clients with increased access to technology. For some, it's a smart TV in their room at a transition house. For others, it's access to a tablet and help learning to use it.

And in a few cases, it means simply being given a mobile phone — maybe the first mobile phone that person has ever owned. 

CEO Lisa Browne says it's an effort to bridge what's often called the "digital disconnect."

"Generally the people we work with, they have many barriers like mental illnesses, addictions, homelessness, poverty," said Browne.

"They're isolated at the best of times. And so now when you're told to self-isolate, you're even more cut off from your usual supports."

This is one of the smartphones that Stella's Circle has given to vulnerable people in St. John's. (Stella's Circle)

As the pandemic bore down on Newfoundland and Labrador, Browne says the foundation immediately realized a lack of access to technology would put their clients in a debilitating, even dangerous position.

"I would say we've been aware of it from the beginning, because it's constantly an issue. And so in a time like this, it's even more so," said Browne.

How vulnerable people are plugging in

The foundation has recently taken several steps to get clients connected.

At Naomi Centre, a homeless shelter for young women in St. John's, smart TVs have been installed in the bedrooms. Residents can use them to watch Netflix and make video calls to friends and family.  

"You can talk to people about the importance of isolation and the importance of physical distancing. When you're a teenager it might be hard to listen to those messages," said Browne. "If you're a teenager who is living at a shelter, it can be really hard to listen to those messages."

Smart TVs have been installed in the bedrooms at Naomi Centre, a homeless shelter for young women in St. John's. (Stella's Circle)

Browne says they've also upgraded the Wi-Fi at Naomi Centre, so more people can be connected at a time. "All as a way to kind of incentivize people to stay in the shelter, rather than go out and get entertainment elsewhere."

At Emmanuel House, a live-in counselling centre in St. John's, residents have been provided with tablet computers, both for entertainment and to access mental health and addictions supports. Many, such as, are now available only online.

Some of the most vulnerable people the foundation serves have been given their own mobile phones to make calls and send text messages.

"Participants are really grateful to know that somebody cares to check in on them, that they have kind of a lifeline of support."

In some cases, Browne says they also have to teach clients how to use these devices, since vulnerable people may lack basic digital literacy skills.

"It's not as simple as buying lots of smartphones and saying, here you go, good luck with it," said Browne. "What if you have literacy issues? You can't read, maybe?"

Some people might not be able to access bank accounts, for example.

"If you've got some fraud charges or criminal justice involvement, it can be difficult to access bank accounts. Which can mean implications in terms of direct deposit, so if you're on income support you can't get it through direct deposit.… It's just layer after layer of complexity."

Stella's Circle offers many programs that help transform lives of struggling adults. (CBC)

Technology is a necessity, not a luxury

CBC recently reported on how poor and other vulnerable people are caught on the wrong side of a "digital disconnect" at a time when it's never been more important to have access to technology.

Browne couldn't agree more.

"You think of how you get all your information about the right behaviour to have. We're told to go online for [provincial health line] 811, or to call 811, so you need a phone, or you need computer access, you need to be able to read," she said.

Browne also says it's unfortunate access to technology is often considered a luxury, rather than a necessity like access to water or electricity. Even entertainment services like Netflix have become an essential part of life for many people during the pandemic, she said.

"You can only spend a few minutes on social media to hear people say how bored they are," said Browne. "Imagine if you lived in a precarious housing unit with nothing except maybe a chair and a table, and how scary and lonely that would be."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Zach Goudie is a journalist and video producer with CBC in St. John's, NL.