The non-profit settlement sector is at the core of Canada’s much celebrated settlement and integration approach to immigrant newcomers. But COVID-19 has strained the capacity of the sector as the crisis rapidly expands the human service needs of newcomers. The pandemic poses an immediate ‘triple threat’ to the sector: “revenue loss, office closures and service cancellations, and human resource challenges”. Many agencies are not in a position to keep operations open and are suffering significant job losses. This is especially concerning since non-profits act as shock absorbers for societies in crisis.
COVID-19 has pushed the settlement sector to embrace resilience and shape-shift into virtual modes. The challenge of moving to online services has been considerable. Larger settlement agencies have been in better position to make this shift because they usually have better access to the technology necessary to go online. Since settlement organizations are lean operations, technology is expensive and funders rarely provide adequate support for such investments, a technology gap exists. Still an Imagine Canada survey of social service charities found that 54% of organizations were able to innovate and move their programs online. The ability of many to make this shift is because there has been a steady, if uneven, movement in the settlement sector to use of technology for delivering services at a distance. Pre-arrival services are the most notable example.
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There are mixed stories about how clients and settlement service staff and leadership are adapting. A recent qualitative survey suggests that overall, workers and management have been resilient and have adapted, in many cases with great success. Most are happy to be able to continue to work carrying out the mission of their organizations and serve clients in need. However, there remains a lot of uncertainty and stress associated with their work and the shift has significantly increased workload. A saying in the settlement sector during the pandemic is that “it is not business as usual it is more business than usual”. This raises a serious problem of staff burnout and mental health issues.
The ‘lived experience’ of many immigrant clients is their extreme vulnerability
For clients with digital skills, good access to technology and strong official language skills, the shift to online has generally gone smoothly. There is broad appreciation of the dedication of staff, the adaptability of service delivery, and in some cases even a preference for this innovative service form. Other newcomers are falling through the settlement service pandemic cracks. This is especially the case for those clients who are less digitally adept, lacking in technology and have more limited official language abilities. Their access to services has been greatly impeded. The ‘lived experience’ of many immigrant clients is their extreme vulnerability.
But there have been beneficial learnings from the experience of going online. For some newcomers, it has allowed for greater service flexibility. For many immigrant women it enabled them to better manage their childcare needs to access services. In some cases it has extended the geographical reach of some agencies beyond their physical catchment areas to under serviced regions. It is also clear that the pandemic has speeded up the movement to greater technology use and online service delivery. These learnings will be used to enhance existing services.
Will the crisis pave the way to a ‘progressive opening’ to address the glaring inequalities made evident by the pandemic?
There is a need for substantive technology investments in sector infrastructure. This includes the need to support the technology training of staff. The future of the settlement sector is one where its digital face will expand. Still, the nature of settlement, in the absence of a pandemic, is one where service will largely continue to be public facing. The sector’s strength is centred in its embeddedness in community with a workforce largely of immigrant background.
Sharing agency experiences of operating under COVID-19, including challenges and best practices, is important. For this to be effective the culture of the sector requires a shift to one featured by an ethic of “sharing without fear or competition”. This requires a move away from past neoliberal approaches to agency operations imposed by government funders stressing the values and practices of agency competitiveness and lean funding models.
We must recognize the dual role of the non-profit sector in providing both services and advocacy. The advocacy function is critical for the settlement sector because it provides voice to immigrants from a social justice vantage point. The inequities unveiled by COVID-19 can be articulated by settlement agencies promoting policy and programming reforms and supports.
As the settlement sector shape-shifts to the ‘new normal’ in the post-COVID-19 world there will be a struggle to define what that reality will look like. Will it be shaped by another round of neoliberal austerity or will the crisis pave the way to a ‘progressive opening’ to address the glaring inequalities made evident by the pandemic? A progressive policy agenda will only be actualized through a strong sector advocacy role.