Downtown Eastside: Emergency phones give seniors a lifeline

Project by park board commissioner received overwhelming support

Sitting in the ground floor window of Tellier Tower on East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside, Tom Ryan pulls a dark-red cellphone out of his pocket.

“So far I’ve just used it to tell time and listen to the radio,” explained Ryan, who turns 80 in March.

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After retiring 15 years ago, the former seaman moved into the Downtown Eastside and since then has seen it all but had no way to help. Ryan’s new phone will now act as an emergency lifeline should he witness someone in trouble or need assistance of his own.

Ryan, who walks with the help of a cane, received his phone through a project launched by Sarah Blyth, a senior outreach worker with the Portland Hotel Society. Blyth, who also sits as a park board commissioner, came up with the idea to equip low-income seniors with a phone programmed to call 911. She found support from the Vancouver Police Department, Vancity, Telus and Free Geek, a technology-recycling group. It’s Free Geek’s job to ensure the phones work, to program them to dial 911 and to delete all personal information from previous owners. Donors are reminded to remove their SIM cards prior to giving away old phones.

“Some of the phones are new, so besides dialling 911, you can listen to the music or play games,” said Blyth. “Each phone is different so I’ve had to sit down one-on-one with everyone to show them how to use them.”

Blyth began with a campaign last fall to collect 500 phones and chargers, but was overwhelmed when the count reached more than 1,700.

“I went to Vancity and looked in the collection box expecting to see a couple of phones, but it was full,” said Blyth. “It was really awesome. I asked for help and people gave it.”

Blyth said some residents of Tellier Tower are in their 90s and until now, had no way to call for help when they were injured or ill. They were forced to try to make their way to the lobby of the building. A recent survey conducted by the Portland Hotel Society showed 20 per cent of residents living in the Downtown Eastside are seniors, with 97 per cent living below the poverty line.

Blyth said few seniors living in the Downtown Eastside can afford a phone or Lifeline medical alert services.

The phones were donated from neighbouring municipalities and from across the city, including 300 from Wavefront, a wireless research company on West Hastings Street. The Wavefront donations were given to seniors in December, just prior to their departure on a special bus tour of the Bright Nights Christmas display in Stanley Park. The city also donated 75 BlackBerry phones to kick-start the campaign.

Blyth has plans for the extra phones collected.

“We donating them to anyone who’s vulnerable,” said Blyth. “That includes the police so they can give them to sex-trade workers and victims of domestic violence.”

Ryan is happy to use his new phone as a radio.

“But I’m prepared for an emergency,” he added, patting the pocket covering his new cellphone.

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