Calls are growing for the provincial government to fund phone service for Nova Scotians on income assistance.
For the past two years, Evelyn Napier has been on income assistance, and although she wanted a phone, she just couldn’t afford it.
“I absolutely wanted a phone, but it just wasn’t even remotely feasible,” says Napier.
Phone service is also not something covered through the government program, unless deemed medically essential, in which case a client would have to get medical documentation.
“Phone rates in this country are just dreadful. If I got a phone, then it meant I wasn’t saving any money for emergencies,” she says.
“It would be like making tradeoffs, which is classic when you’re on income assistance, you’re always making tradeoffs – you don’t have choices. So the phone went out the window and I relied on email and Facebook, but it’s just not the same.”
However last month, she received a phone, free of charge, from Adsum for Women and Children.
“I might get emotional,” says Napier, when asked about it.
“It’s one thing to read an email or read a Facebook post. It’s another thing to hear someone’s voice. A family member, a good friend, and to just have this free and flowing exchange and to be able to commiserate together – or to laugh together – there’s just no comparison.”
Adsum has been collecting used cellphones to give to their clients — the majority of whom are on income assistance, — for years, says Kathy McNab, a fund development and communications officer.
“It’s always been important for emergency services, especially anyone leaving domestic violence. It’s a safety thing,” says McNab, noting the emergence of COVID-19 has exacerbated the need to keep clients connected.
“Being online for all of us in the last few months, it’s really turned into an essential service that we never really thought about having or not having as much as we are today.”
Last month, Adsum’s executive director Sheri Lecker penned an op-ed, calling on the government to combat the “painful social isolation facing our most vulnerable citizens.”
“We are told, ‘We’re all in this together. Stay home as much as possible. Shop online. Go out minimally for essentials.’ These are tough orders to follow if you don’t have internet access, a credit card, and have to take the bus with your kids in order to pick up your order, if online shopping is even an option,” Lecker wrote.
“If our government truly wants people to stay put, the funding and supports need to be there so that they can.”
Social worker starts petition
It was reading Lecker’s op-ed that prompted Anna Tillet, a Halifax social worker, to start a petition, calling on the government to provide phones and basic service to all Nova Scotians on income assistance. The petition has so far garnered hundreds of signatures.
“In 2020, to declare access to a telephone a special need is very shortsighted,” she tells Global News.
“We are all using telephones to stay connected, so whether that is with your grandmother, whether it’s with another immigrant from your community, just to hear someone’s voice has so much meaning these days.”
Tillett also points to the COVID-19 crisis and the recent mass shooting in Nova Scotia as reasons why having access to a phone is not a luxury, but a lifeline.
“Being able to contact 911, 811, and unfortunately, as we’ve seen in Nova Scotia, receive emergency alerts, which have become a part of our reality recently,” she says.
“The RCMP sent out their information on Twitter, and when you think about someone on basic assistance, they don’t even have a cellphone. How would they have received that information?”
Province partners with Telus
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nova Scotia government partnered with Telus to provide 100 phones and calling plans for income assistance clients, “who have no other means of communication, and who may be self-isolated and alone.”
“We recognize is an unprecedented and stressful time and vulnerable Nova Scotians need our support. That’s why we’ve made several important investments, including $50,000 to purchase cellphones for those who may be left with no way to communicate if they are required to self-isolate,” a Department of Community Services spokesperson wrote to Global News in an email.
“Caseworkers work very closely with their clients, are aware of their needs, and would ensure they have a phone if they are self-isolated due to COVID-19 or require one as a special allowance for another medical reason. Clients should always reach out to their caseworkers to discuss their needs.”
While McNab applauds this step, she’d like to see supports continue beyond this pandemic.
“Okay, what’s next? That’s what we really want to talk about and make happen,” she says. “The answer really is, if I’m on social assistance, I need the basic essential of being able to connect with people and services.”
Napier agrees and supports the calls, knowing firsthand just how important connection can be.
“I’m not naïve, and I understand the restrictions that govern the budgets, but we’re talking about – this is the year 2020 –phones aren’t a luxury anymore,” she says.
“Phones are essential.”
“There’s been a paradigm shift in that regard. When I was a kid growing up, phones were no big deal, but now they’re everything and so I think it’s time for the government to make that paradigm shift as well.”