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Surge in city homeless reaching ‘crisis’ level

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Tara Jeffrey

When Stephanie Vandevenne noticed a surge of homeless men and women at Bluewater Health she knew she couldn’t turn a blind eye.

It isn’t just released patients with nowhere to go. People have been huddling in the ambulance bay to find shelter at the night, slipping into the emergency department waiting room to stay warm, and even curling up in the bushes to sleep.

“We can’t ignore it as a hospital — these are our people too,” said the manager of care transitions at Bluewater Health.

It’s Vandevenne’s job to ensure discharged patients are in good hands, especially those without family or who have medical and social barriers, including homelessness.

“If you don’t have a warm place to sleep at night, you have nothing else. You can’t even think about tomorrow. You’re thinking about where you’re going to sleep, how you’re going to eat and be safe,” she said.

And the problem is growing.

“Even our director of security said that in 31 years, he’s never seen it like this,” said Julia Oosterman, the hospital’s chief of communications and public affairs.

“We have a truly unprecedented spike in people who are homeless coming to our hospital… and it’s a relatively new phenomenon.”

Myles Vanni, manager of the Good Shepherd’s Lodge homeless shelter, said a ‘perfect storm’ of factors has created a housing crisis.

They range from speculators buying up units, evicting people, and renovating in anticipation of the NOVA plant expansion, as well as apartment management companies consolidating and changing requirements that discriminate against low-income residents.

“We went from a year ago, having 15 or 16 people a night, to now, 25 people a night. We’re at capacity… there’s just no place for them to go,” he said.

People are seeking shelter in sheds, garages and building entrances in addition to the hospital property, he added.

Oosterman said many hospitals, especially in larger centres, have strict ‘zero tolerance’ policies about sheltering homeless people who aren’t acutely ill.

“That just doesn’t align with the heart of our organization,” she said. “We have this whole thing here called the culture of kindness… it may sound cheesy, but we have a very loving approach.

“Our hospital is like an ecosystem,” she added. “You often see that when something is out of whack in the community, it presents at the hospital. Whether it’s lack of food, shelter, or any of these social things that don’t really fall under health care in the traditional sense — but they end up in our emergency department because there’s nowhere else to go.”

Vandevenne put a call out to community agencies — Sarnia-Lambton Rebound, the Inn of the Good Shepherd, Lambton Circles, Lambton Public Health, MPP Bob Bailey’s office, Lambton County Social Services and others — to try and find solutions.

Rebound director Carrie McEachran said staff at The Hub — the agency’s drop-in centre for youth aged 16 to 24 — often struggle to find accommodation after the facility closes at 8 p.m.

“We are, quite often at the end of the night, having to reach out to other community partners to see if crisis beds are available, or finding an affordable hotel for the night.

“It’s becoming a real crisis in this community.”

Vandevenne said she was thrilled the agencies gathered last week to collectively come up with a plan, albeit one still in the early stages.

“Everyone who came was so excited to be here; so engaged about this issue. I just felt this complete gratitude,” she said.

“One in three women who are homeless are sexually assaulted every year in Canada. So when we have women out there sleeping in the ambulance bay or hiding in the bushes around the hospital because they are petrified…everyone needs to come together to support them.

The agencies are looking into options, including funding opportunities, setting up potential ‘warming centres’ and temporary shelter locations this winter.

Oosterman said the impromptu task force speaks volumes about the hospital’s culture and the community at large.

“I don’t know if it’s the spirit of the season or what, but it’s very heart-warming.”

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