Y-Fi: How Sudbury’s YMCA is helping vulnerable people get online

After libraries and other service providers shut down, Sudbury’s homeless population lacked access to various amenities. So the YMCA stepped in
By Nick Dunne - Published on May 25, 2020
The YMCA’s initiative operates seven days a week from noon to 5 p.m. and draws between 16 and 30 people daily. (Nick Dunne)

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SUDBURY — Every day since mid-April, Siobhan Fagan has walked to downtown Sudbury’s YMCA, on Durham Street. That’s because the branch started offering access to a landline, computers, Wi-Fi, and washrooms after other free-service providers, such as libraries, had shut down. Currently experiencing homelessness and without a cellphone, Fagan says that the service has allowed her to remain in contact with her children, who live with their father in the Greater Sudbury community of Azilda. “These are my children,” says Fagan. “I need to hear their voices. They need to hear my voice.”

Helen Francis, CEO at the YMCA of Northeastern Ontario, says that the branch’s initiative, which operates seven days a week from noon to 5 p.m. and draws between 16 and 30 people daily, was inspired by another effort in the region: in North Bay, the local YMCA had acted as an emergency shelter until the city opened the Pete Palangio Arena on April 16. “We really want to step up and continue to play a role — albeit a little bit differently — in building healthy communities,” says Francis. At first, it opened the washrooms, but the need for internet access soon became apparent, and three desktops and two landlines were made available for use. “It was recognized pretty quickly that folks do need to access online resources, either by telephone or computer,” she says. “Because pretty much every social service had to close their doors or were working remotely.”

In the YMCA lobby on May 15, Fagan takes a moment after an emotional call with her son, who is finishing Grade 12. “We had the most authentic chat, and I didn’t have anybody looking over my shoulder,” she says. Beside her on the wall is a sheet of paper with the phone number for a legal clinic that is offering to help with various benefit programs and legal assistance for tenants. Fagan says that internet and phone services grant her access to “the bare essentials of life,” adding, “If you need social services, you cannot get food or shelter without them. You can communicate with the [social] worker online. You can send people attachments or fax things.”

Before the pandemic, Fagan says, she would use the services available via the Greater Sudbury Public Library system, which, in 2019 alone, registered more than 88,000 computer logins in the city of 160,000. “I was one of those people in the last few years,” she says. “I was there all the time.”

While the public can still access library Wi-Fi in Sudbury by logging in from just outside the branches’ doors, service providers say that the YMCA offers the only indoor space in the city for internet browsing. And indoor space, with familiar staff and a security presence, can provide a safe zone for those in need, Fagan says, noting that she used to have an iPad, but it was stolen, so she’s borrowing a laptop from her son. Her lifestyle affords her certain freedoms, she says, but she adds, “I'll never get used to that — how vulnerable you are to theft when you're a nomad.”

Lisa Long, executive director of the Samaritan Centre, a facility that hosts a soup kitchen, a health clinic, and the Elgin Street Mission, has been referring clients to the YMCA during Ontario’s state of emergency. “These services are vital for the homeless and vulnerable clients that we serve as a means of contacting their family, their friends, their workers, their support systems,” says Long. “With social, mental-health, and addictions services being limited to Zoom and online contact, our clients can make the connections that they need through the phone and internet services available to them at the YMCA that normally would have been available to them through other facilities, such as the library or drop-in spaces in the city.”

As Fagan leaves the YMCA, where staff sanitize surfaces and screen visitors before allowing access to physically distanced devices, she waves goodbye to a man sitting in the lobby. “See you at the shel-tel [a portmanteau of shelter and hotel],” she says in a mock French accent, referring to the Canada’s Best Value Inn that has become an overnight shelter. Walking to the Tim Hortons downtown, she reflects on the changes COVID-19 has brought. She’s missing spots such as the café and the library: “When you’re a nomad, you don't have the familiar home base of a house that you're familiar with, a car and a family. So your family becomes those pit stops that you have along the way.”

She recalls breaking into tears recently after seeing a man she hadn’t encountered since the pandemic forced many businesses to shut down in March. As they caught up (while remaining two metres apart), Fagan says, she “realized how much I had missed running into him.” Amid the uncertainty, it’s the connections — whether through the phone, Facebook, or at the local spots — that keep her positive. “Those kinds of moments are happening all over the place,” she says. “And they're beautiful.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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