Shelters, public health agencies gather in Winnipeg, aiming to improve health care for vulnerable persons

A three-day conference looking at how shelters and public health can work together to provide better care for medically vulnerable people kicked off at the Delta Hotel in Winnipeg Tuesday. 

More than 100 people who work in shelters and public health agencies from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, northern Alberta and northwestern Ontario are at the conference, which is being run by the Winnipeg-based National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases.

The idea is to bring together people who work in shelters and public health to discuss the needs of people experiencing homelessness, said Yoav Keynan, the centre’s scientific director and an infectious diseases clinician.

“We see that the shelters are an important place in this movement between community hospitals and correction facilities, and there are many gaps in our health-care system,” he said.

Many vulnerable people face barriers to accessing health care, said Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, chief executive officer of Siloam Mission, a Winnipeg shelter that focuses on alleviating hardships for those affected by poverty and homelessness. 

Without a concerted effort and funding for regular access to primary health care in shelters, there could be more problems in the future, she said.

“I think this is a really timely conversation because there were so many lessons learned during the peak of the pandemic about what shelters could do” to help those falling through gaps in different systems, Blaikie Whitecloud said.

A handful of physicians volunteer at the shelter for eight to 12 hours per week. Siloam Mission has three beds specifically for people coming out of hospitals, but due to high demand they are currently being used for women in need of shelter.

A woman stands in front of two pieces of art.
Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, chief executive officer of the Winnipeg-based shelter Siloam Mission, said people need regular access to primary health care. (Prabhjot Lotey/CBC)

People who need shelters are already facing difficulties, she said.

“Whatever led to their experience of homelessness was probably traumatic and being homeless itself is traumatic,” she said. “How do we make sure that the resources are as close and attainable as possible for them, so that they can really kick-start their recovery journey by accessing them where needed?”

Gaps in the system

Finding ways to better connect people with public health could help address gaps, said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer.

“It’s really the disparities in health status which is driving ill health in Manitoba, and those in the lower socioeconomic status — certainly those who rely on shelters for their health care means — are certainly at tremendous risk of negative health outcomes,” Roussin said.

A man stands in a room.
Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said barrier-free access to services and health care is needed for people in shelters. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Exploring ways to provide barrier-free access to the some of the most vulnerable people in the province is critical.

Ramping up public health’s presence in shelters is one way to improve care in the short term, but it’s important to listen to what people want. 

The longer-term approach would see the province look at why people need shelters.

“We want to be there to listen, to be able to provide services that they need,” Roussin said. “This requires a lot of engagement to see what people need, where they’re at right now.”

The conference, called Protected: Shelters and Public Health: A Winter Institute, continues Wednesday and Thursday, and will explore topics such as harm reduction strategies, air quality in shelters and pregnant women who experience homelessness.

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