First responders detail dangers of closing Thunder Bay, Ont., street outreach services before winter

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First responders in Thunder Bay, Ont., are expressing disappointment and concern as they approach a winter without life-saving outreach services in the northwestern Ontario city.

Earlier this fall, it was announced Shelter House’s street outreach service (SOS) was being terminated due to a lack of funding and staff. A short time later, there were reports the vehicle used for NorWest Community Health Centres’ care bus was for sale on Facebook Marketplace.

Both programs offered free transportation, food and water, and basic wound care, among other services for people living outdoors, sometimes struggling with addiction or poor mental health.

They don’t address the root causes, or provide a systemic solution, to supporting people experiencing homelessness or who use substances, but they filled a gap in the community — a gap otherwise filled by police and paramedics.

“Programs like the care bus and SOS help take unnecessary pressure off our service and allow our members to focus on the core functions of law enforcement,” said Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) Insp. Derek West in an emailed statement to CBC News.

“They also provide some of our most vulnerable citizens with a service more appropriate to their needs,” West added.

In 2014, the TBPS responded to more than 4,000 calls for service related to Ontario’s Liquor Licence Act, including public intoxication. Those numbers have declined consistently, according to the TBPS, with just 1,390 calls for service in 2021, a nearly 70 per cent drop.

“We do believe this drop is, partly or entirely, the result of programs like SOS, which provide a real and practical diversion from a law enforcement response,” West said.

We are concerned that if programs like this are discontinued, we will see calls for service steadily increase.– Insp. Derek West of Thunder Bay Police Service

“We are concerned that if programs like this are discontinued, we will see calls for service steadily increase.”

A similar concern was raised by another police officer, Det. Const. Neal Soltys, during his testimony at an ongoing inquest in Thunder Bay. Among other key questions, the inquest is examining the police responses to public intoxication calls, including Soltys’s conduct after he dragged an Indigenous man across the TBPS headquarters while using derogatory language.

Lawyers at the inquest asked Soltys about the role the SOS program plays in supporting people suspected of being intoxicated, and transporting them to an appropriate place.

“Police are the backstop for everything that happens in society. The SOS program, we use them a lot … they pick up marginalized people, they pick up intoxicated people,” he said.

With cancellation of the SOS, “it leaves that hole that will have to be picked up by police. We just don’t have the resources, we don’t have the training to deal with it,” Soltys added.

The officer estimated it only takes 15 minutes to attend a call for service when the SOS program is involved, but it can take upwards of 50 minutes to bring someone suspected of intoxication to a police cell, and between two and four hours for an officer to bring someone to hospital for medical care.

SOS program made thousands of transports

Data collected by Shelter House over the past year and a half doesn’t match up to such a significant diversion of calls as indicated by police, but it does show the link between the SOS program and first responders.

From January to May 2022, police and paramedics referred a total of 70 calls to SOS — calls that those services didn’t need to respond to, and were able to move on to more urgent issues.

In all of 2021, the police and EMS made 142 referrals to SOS.

During those 17 months, the SOS program made a total of 3,144 transports. Many involved bringing people from one shelter to another — for example, if beds were full in a shelter on the city’s north side, but available on the south side — or bringing people to and from hospital, according to Bonnie Krysowaty, who collected the data for Shelter House.

Superior North EMS chief Wayne Gates says he hopes to see Shelter House’s SOS program get back on the road to help take pressure off city paramedics and police. (Twitter)

Wayne Gates, chief of Superior North EMS, said the SOS program took pressure off paramedics, who are in Code Black — where there are no free ambulances, available to answer a call for service — on a daily basis in Thunder Bay.

“We are an extremely busy service here, and unfortunately between the staff and challenges with our health resources both here and with the hospital, it puts pressure on us,” Gates said.

“It was a key program in our community to help these underserviced individuals out there, so I hope this program can come back in some form.”

Agencies working to restore service

Work is underway in an effort to get outreach services back up and running, according to Shelter House’s executive director, Cal Rankin.

“People are somewhat angry that [SOS] has been cancelled, and I think the reality is settling in that people may be at risk if the service doesn’t continue in some way.”

He said Shelter House, NorWest Community Health Centres and harm reduction agency Elevate NWO are in conversations to see if they could partner to resurrect some kind of service that fills the role of SOS and the care bus.

Both of those programs were supported by a mix of provincial and federal funding distributed by the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board, the Lakehead Social Planning Council and the Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre, and through fundraising efforts.

Many of the funds from those agencies have already been spent on other important initiatives, like transitional housing.

LISTEN | Cal Rankin describes why SOS program had to close

Superior Morning7:57Cal Rankin: Street Outreach Services Program

Shelter House Thunder Bay says it no longer has the funding, or staff, needed to keep its SOS program on the road. Hear from their executive director.

Even if the money was magically found tomorrow to operate some form of outreach and transportation service, Rankin said the program will need sustainable funding and staff.

“Some of the talks have been about maybe sharing staff, which might make it easier to do, but I think everybody’s in the same predicament as the shelter in terms of hiring,” he said.

“It’s a tough labour market, and our wages aren’t the highest, so people tend to leave here to go elsewhere … there’s a need to have a decent wage so people can make an honest living.”

Community and funding agencies are racing against the weather, as Thunder Bay wakes up to frostier temperatures every morning.



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