First responders detail the dangers of the closure of local services in Thunder Bay, Ontario, before winter
First responders in Thunder Bay, Ontario are expressing their disappointment and concern as a winter approaches without vital community services in the northwestern Ontario city.
Earlier this fall, it was announced that Shelter House’s Street Outreach Service (SOS) was being cut due to lack of funding and staffing. Shortly after, it was reported that the vehicle used for the NorWest Community Health Centers 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 on the go who sometimes struggle with addiction or poor mental health.
They don’t address the root causes or provide a systemic solution to support people who are homeless or who use substances, but they fill a gap in the community – a gap otherwise filled by police and paramedics.
“Programs like the Care Bus and SOS help reduce unnecessary pressure on our department and allow our members to focus on essential law enforcement functions,” said the Inspector of the Police Department of Thunder Bay (TBPS). Derek West in an emailed statement to CBC News.
“They are also providing some of our most vulnerable citizens with a service more tailored to their needs,” West added.
In 2014, TBPS responded to over 4,000 calls for service related to Ontario’s Liquor License Act, including public intoxication. Those numbers have been steadily declining, according to TBPS, with just 1,390 service calls in 2021, a drop of nearly 70%.
« We believe this decline is, in part or entirely, the result of programs like SOS, which provide a real and practical diversion from a law enforcement response, » West said.
We fear that if programs like this are discontinued, we will see service calls steadily increase.– Insp. Derek West of the Thunder Bay Police Department
« 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 investigation in Thunder Bay. Among other key issues, the inquest examines police responses to public intoxication calls, including Soltys’ conduct after dragging an Indigenous man through TBPS headquarters while using derogatory language.
Inquest lawyers asked Soltys about the role the SOS program plays in supporting people suspected of being intoxicated and transporting them to an appropriate location.
« The police are the safety net for everything that happens in society. The SOS program, we use them a lot… they arrest marginalized people, they arrest people who are intoxicated, » he said .
With the cancellation of the SOS, « it leaves this hole that will have to be filled by the police. We just don’t have the resources, we don’t have the training to deal with it, » Soltys added.
The officer estimated that it only takes 15 minutes to respond to a call for service when the SOS program is involved, but it can take up to 50 minutes to bring a person suspected of intoxication to a police cell, and between two and four hours for an officer to bring someone to the hospital for medical attention.
The SOS program has carried out thousands of transports
Data collected by Shelter House over the past year and a half does not match as much call diversion as reported by police, but it does show the link between the SOS program and first responders.
From January to May 2022, police and paramedics returned a total of 70 calls to SOS – calls that these services did not need to answer and were able to move on to more pressing issues.
In all of 2021, police and EMS made 142 referrals to SOS.
During these 17 months, the SOS program carried out a total of 3,144 transports. Many involved transporting people from one shelter to another – for example, if beds were full at a shelter on the north side of town, but available on the south side – or transporting people to and from the hospital, according to Bonnie Krysowaty, who collected the data. for the lodging house.
Wayne Gates, head of Superior North EMS, said the SOS program is providing daily relief to paramedics, who are in Code Black – where there are no free ambulances, available to respond to a call for service – at Thunder Bay.
« We’re an extremely busy department here, and unfortunately between the staff and the challenges with our healthcare resources here and with the hospital, that puts pressure on us, » Gates said.
« It was a key program in our community to help these underserved people, so hopefully this program can come back in some form. »
Agencies working to restore service
Work is underway to get community services back up and running, according to Shelter House executive director Cal Rankin.
« People are a little angry that [SOS] has been cancelled, and I think the reality is setting in that people may be at risk if the service somehow does not continue. »
He said Shelter House, NorWest Community Health Centers and harm reduction agency Elevate NWO are in talks to see if they could team up to resurrect some kind of service that fulfills the role of SOS and the bus. of care.
Both of these programs were supported by a combination of provincial and federal funds distributed by the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board, the Lakehead Social Planning Council and the Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre, as well as fundraising efforts of funds.
Many of the funds from these organizations have already been spent on other important initiatives, such as transitional housing.
LISTEN | Cal Rankin explains why the SOS program had to shut down
Superior Morning7:57Cal Rankin: Street Outreach Program
Even if the money were magically found tomorrow to operate some form of outreach and transportation service, Rankin said the program would need sustainable funding and staffing.
« Some of the discussions have been about sharing staff, which might make it easier, but I think everyone is in the same position as the shelter in terms of hiring, » he said.
« It’s a tough job market, and our wages aren’t the highest, so people tend to leave here and go somewhere else… you have to have a decent wage so people can make a living honestly. »
The community and funders are racing against the weather as Thunder Bay wakes up each morning to freezing temperatures.