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Mobile team checking in on homeless people in Renfrew County

Renfrew County's chief paramedic and director of emergency services Michael Nolan hopes this approach will help gain the trust of homeless people and connect them with supports they might otherwise not access. (CBC - image credit)
Renfrew County's chief paramedic and director of emergency services Michael Nolan hopes this approach will help gain the trust of homeless people and connect them with supports they might otherwise not access. (CBC - image credit)

In an effort to proactively offer health care and social services to its vulnerable population, a county just west of Ottawa is creating a special team to roam the county in search of people who are struggling with homelessness.

The team will include a paramedic, an addictions counsellor and a crisis worker, said Michael Nolan, Renfrew County's director of emergency services and its chief paramedic.

"They're going to be mobile on the streets, working with our known vulnerable population and building relationships so that those individuals have a greater chance of making choices," he said.

According to Nolan, the program is in response to a growing crisis in both homelessness and mental health-related cases in the county, as well as specific challenges facing the region.

With an area measuring 7,448 square kilometres, Renfrew County is the largest in Ontario. It also lacks an emergency shelter.

As a results, Nolan said, the homeless population may not know who to turn to, or that services exist to help them address both their physical and mental health needs.

A new approach

Under this new approach, the team will be able to provide immediate wound care and health checks to clients on site, connect them to harm reduction programs if the client desires, and eventually offer them transitional housing options.

"It represents a change in thinking and how we engage with community agencies that are supporting vulnerable populations," Nolan said.

A list generated by the county of its homeless population contains roughly 100 names, Nolan said, though he figures that's less than half of the actual number since it's a challenge conducting an accurate survey over such a large area.

At The Grind in Pembroke, Tina Spurrell has witnessed first-hand how geography impacts the health of the county's vulnerable population.

The operations manager of the drop-in centre and community kitchen said she's had clients who've been offered an ambulance ride to the hospital, but who decline because they're worried how they'll make the trip back after they're treated.

"The initiative to go and meet people where they're at and to support them is paramount to a healthier lifestyle," said Spurrell. "We plant that seed and they begin to trust us and learn that the facilities we're offering are there for their benefit."

'Escalator model' of housing

While the team will address immediate health-care needs, the longer-term goal of the contact is to guide homeless people along what Nolan calls an "escalator model" of housing.

He said that might mean getting people off the streets or out of encampments and into transitional housing that includes social services, and eventually into an affordable unit they can rent.

This isn't the first time Renfrew County has changed its model to bring services to vulnerable people in their own space.

Since 2022, the county has given residents the option of contacting a community paramedic directly through a toll-free help line, thereby lowering the likelihood that higher-use populations will call 911 or go to the emergency department.