Over a year into the COVID-19 crisis, many local people are facing tough choices as they struggle to support themselves and their families.

Sometimes, it’s a decision on a small scale: a woman in line at the store, wondering whether she should buy menstrual supplies or a few bus tickets with her last $10. She hesitates, remembering how last month, she used folded-up toilet paper. But she knows she needs to get to an appointment tomorrow, so she buys the bus tickets, hoping her makeshift solution doesn’t fail.

Other times, it’s a single father, choosing between buying groceries to feed his children or paying the bills so his utilities aren’t shut off. He weighs his options carefully, struggling to find the answer that makes the most sense. There isn’t one.

The pandemic has created, and exacerbated, financial difficulties in our community, making decisions like this all too common. As unemployment soars (Calgary’s unemployment rate was 9.3 per cent in April 2021, which remains higher than the national average of 8.1 per cent), many people are finding themselves in need of support for the first time. At the same time, the 189,000 Calgarians already living in poverty continue to face enormous strain as they struggle to get out of it.

The needs in our community are so far-reaching that many of United Way’s agency partners have had to creatively adjust their programming to meet high demand for social services. Women in Need Society (WINS) is one example: while their mandate is to provide basic needs resources and support to women and their families, they have temporarily expanded their client base to include men.

“Last year when everybody was closed, WINS programs were still open and running and we were helping everybody,” says Vera Nassar, senior coordinator of programs at WINS.

Technology access is now a basic need too

Our definition of basic needs is also expanding as the pandemic sheds light on what people need to survive a difficult time.

Topping the list along with food, shelter, and personal hygiene products is technology. What was once considered a luxury is now a necessity: internet-enabled devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops help strengthen our social connections, thereby improving our well-being, and provide access to vital information and services. But for people living on a low income, internet access and technology devices are often unaffordable. And for parents who were already struggling to put food on the table, the idea of having to pay for these items so their children can continue their studies from home is stressful and overwhelming.

“Parents still have a duty to keep their kids online in school,” says Jacqueline Guimond, community support coordinator at WINS. “But there’s no support for them.”

Technology is also important for older adults who are relying on it to stay in touch with family members, friends, and professionals as they isolate. For those struggling with loneliness, having opportunities to connect with others, even by screen, is more than helpful for mental health—it’s critical.

“At least with cell phones, we can FaceTime. But for seniors who are financially struggling, that is often not an option,” says Nassar. “Seniors wonder, ‘Am I going to live to see my kids and grandkids again or not?’ It’s very sad. The best they can do is video chat.”

Answering the call

United Way responded to the urgent need for technology last year through two of our signature initiatives. All In for Youth partnered with the Calgary Flames Foundation to provide Chromebooks to 500 local high school students, enabling them to continue their studies online during the pandemic. And our Community Hubs initiative, with the support of Ruckify, Electronic Recycling Association, and corporate donors, distributed 301 technology devices to seniors and families in need. This helped local people access online mental health supports, file their taxes, connect with loved ones, and continue schooling.

But still, many continue to be in need. That’s why our community came together to support the second Basic Needs Round-Up this summer. Discover our incredible collective impact!