My riding is home to the Downtown Eastside community, one of the lowest income ridings in Canada. With a high homeless population and a population that’s inadequately housed, socially distancing is especially challenging for this community, making the community more vulnerable to the pandemic. With many community service and amenities shutting down for the pandemic, many of the challenges already faced by the community are exacerbated. At the same time, many constituents have contacted me to let me know that the cost of telecommunications continues to rise.
One of the challenges that community members have brought to my attention during this pandemic is barriers to accessing internet from home during self-isolation. A constituent who is a senior contacted my office when after 19 days of social distancing, she has run out of internet data on her phone plan. She noted that many places where community members could previously access internet, such as libraries, community centers, and coffeeshops, have all closed due to the pandemic. While there are outdoor locations where free WiFi can be accessed, as an elderly person with a compromised immune system, she does not feel safe in going out, and rightly so.
The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has declared internet access a basic service “necessary to the quality of life of all Canadians” in 2016, and some progress has been made towards the goal of universal internet access for Canadians. Through the #VanWiFi Digital Strategy, many locations in Vancouver and in the Downtown Eastside now have access to free public WiFi, including some social housing buildings.
However, WiFi access is still not available to everyone in the Downtown Eastside community, and the gaps in services are made more extenuating during the pandemic. My constituent unfortunately resides in a social housing building which does not have public WiFi access. Without internet access, she is in isolation without information, social connection, and entertainment. She is unable to get information about government programs and services that are available to assist Canadians, and she is unable to apply for benefits. I’m sure that you will agree with me that this is not a sustainable or humane way for folks with low income to practice social distancing.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that low income, vulnerable Canadians have access to the internet, so that they can be connected to timely and accurate information on the pandemic and government initiatives, be able to apply for government assistance, and to be connected socially to friends and family members. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with the high number of low-income community members, is a community that is especially in need for the expansion of public Wifi. I urge you to take action and work to ensure that all social housing buildings, single room occupancy buildings, and other non-government affordable and low-income housing in the Downtown Eastside have access to public WiFi during this pandemic and after.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.
Jenny Kwan, Member of Parliament for Vancouver East