Downtown Eastside mobile health van aims to connect more women to health care

A specialized, all female health team in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has a new addition to its team: a mobile health clinic.

'The best way to reach those clients is to actually go to them'

Michelle Apps (left) and CeeJai Julian (right) are part of a women's health team in the Downtown Eastside. They will start using this new mobile health van as part of their outreach work starting next week. (Submitted)

A specialized, all female health team in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has a new addition to its team: a mobile health clinic.

The van will allow them to provide on-the-spot health care services to vulnerable women and trans people who live in the Downtown Eastside — people who might otherwise be hesitant to access care in clinic and hospital settings.

"The best way to reach those clients is to actually go to them, whether it be in the parks, the shelters or close to their home," said Bob Chapman, a community services director with Vancouver Coastal Health.

The women's intensive case management team started its work in the Downtown Eastside in February 2017 and currently provides outreach to about 60 women in the neighbourhood who range in age from 22-70. Of this group, three-quarters use opiates and 20 per cent are homeless. 

Team members include a variety of health practitioners and peer specialists with lived experiences in the neighbourhood.

They say the van will increase the support they'll be able to provide to their clients, many who are difficult-to-reach, including sex workers. They expect to see roughly 20 people a day at the van alone. 

Charlene Hellson is the co-ordinator of the Aboriginal wellness program with Vancouver Coastal Health. She said the team's work is especially important for improving the health and wellness of Indigenous women who represent 30 per cent of the total population in the neighbourhood.

She said Indigenous women "face a health disparity far greater than the rest of the non-Indigenous population in Canada" for a whole host of reasons, including colonization and the disproportionate amount of violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls.

"This is why we need health care to meet us where we're at. We need the compassionate outreach."

'I feel that it's saving lives'

CeeJai Julian has been a team member with the case management group since it first started its work in the Downtown Eastside last year.

She is a peer specialist who has lived the experience of many of the women to whom she provides outreach.

"I feel that it's saving lives," she said about the work the team does.

She added that she thinks the mobile health van will be a more comfortable space for a lot of women to access care.

Kaillie Kangro does a walkthrough of the new mobile health clinic with the media. Kangro is the lead for the women's intensive case management team. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

The van is fashioned with a treatment area in the back, including the kind of bed that you'd see in a walk-in clinic. There is a counselling area, vaccination fridge as well as an area stocked with emergency and harm reduction supplies.

Team members said it's important to be able to meet people where they're at and that many of their clients are uncomfortable or afraid of going to hospital or other medical spaces.

"They're afraid of being judged. They're afraid of the diagnosis that's going to happen with them. And as a peer I can relate to them, I can tell them, 'Hey, I'm gonna hold your hand, I'm gonna sit with you while the doctors talk to you, or the nurses,'" said Julian.

The van will officially hit the streets next week and will have a regular schedule of specific spots in Gastown and Strathcona where it will be parked so people can come to them.

While the team works seven days a week, the van will only be out from Monday to Friday to start, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The mobile health clinic was created through a partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health, TELUS Health and the Vancouver General Hospital/UBC Hospital Foundation.

"There's gonna be a lot of success in the van, I really believe that today," said Julian.