Future uncertain for Sunshine House foot clinic providing care, compassion for people in need

In four years, Sunshine House's Street Feet program has grown into a popular program where people can see a foot nurse — and, about every other week, a reflexologist — for free. But its future is uncertain, as its main funding source will disappear at the end of the month.

'The need is so high' for resource centre's Street Feet program, but funding will end this month

Ray Troughton gets his feet looked at on May 1 by Michelle Watling, one of two nurses with Sunshine House's Street Feet program in Winnipeg. Troughton says he hopes the program finds a way to keep going. (Caitlyn Gowriluk/CBC)

Ray Troughton's eyes widen through his glasses as he walks into his weekly appointment at Sunshine House.

He strides through the door of the yellow clinic room on the second floor of the community resource centre on Winnipeg's Logan Avenue. Space here is limited — even fitting three people inside at once can be a challenge. But staff have found room for a piece of furniture donated just this week: a green, electric podiatry chair.

"Ooh, this is a new chair," Troughton exclaims as he plops himself on the addition — which has sturdier armrests, more padding and a longer back than the recliner that used to be there.

He's here for Street Feet, the resource centre's weekly foot clinic, which Troughton, 63, has been coming to for the past few years. He says the centre's welcoming environment is one of the reasons he keeps coming back.

"It's just nice to know that there's somebody there to look after some of the things that are becoming harder for me, as I get older, to look after myself," he says.

"It is some sense of community, even if it's just somebody caring enough to look at your feet."

Registered nurse Michelle Watling looks at Troughton's feet at Sunshine House. ( Caitlyn Gowriluk/CBC)

Foot care is something many take for granted — or even see as a luxury. But program co-ordinator Edith Allec says there's a great need for foot care within the community of people who frequent Sunshine House, many of whom are experiencing homelessness.

"It's something some of them have never had before," Allec says.

"If people have blisters or calluses or the start of an infection, their feet are treated and it helps prevent further problems."

$30K program funding lost

While the program is in demand, though, its future is unclear, because of a recent loss of funding.

Street Feet was started four years ago by the centre's former executive director, Margaret Ormond, and a small group of volunteers. Since then, it's grown into a popular program where people can see a foot nurse — and, about every other week, a reflexologist — for free.

But in February, staff at Sunshine House found out the $30,000 grant from the private company that funded the program will not be renewed at the end of May. The company is shifting its focus to oral health-care programs, says Levi Foy, the centre's interim executive director.

Sunshine House has started looking for new funding sources so it can keep paying its nurses to run the clinic and buying supplies like nail clippers, files and other tools.

"We're exploring all those options right now," says Foy. "It's not a real plan, but it's what we've got. And that's often what we have here, is just hustle."

An end to the program would be a loss for clients like Troughton, who experienced homelessness for nearly a year after losing his job in 2011. He says places like Sunshine House are a lifeline for people in that situation — it's closer to sitting in a friend's living room than being processed through a shelter.

"[It was] very rough, very lonely," he says.

"So to have little spaces like this was very important, because it felt more homey."

Homelessness increases foot health risk

Foot problems are common among people experiencing homelessness, says a 2016 report from Dalhousie University.

The report found up to two-thirds of people experiencing homelessness have some kind of foot health issue, with problems ranging from small injuries and ingrown toenails to deformities and nerve damage caused by untreated conditions. 

It said these issues tend to go overlooked and undertreated, partially because embarrassment about their feet stopped people from getting medical help. Only one in four people surveyed said they got foot care services when they needed them.

It's a problem Street Feet hopes to solve by making meaningful connections with the program's clients, says Michelle Watling, one of the foot clinic's two nurses.

"You just really have to build that rapport and build trust," says Watling, who has been working with Street Feet since March.

Watling says making a connection with people is crucial to making Street Feet work for its community. (Caitlyn Gowriluk/CBC)

Watling says people experiencing homelessness can face a higher risk of foot health issues because they spend a lot of time walking, often don't have properly fitting shoes, and sleep outside in extreme temperatures or in crowded places like shelters.

"They get corns and calluses, and it causes them a lot of pain and it's hard to walk. It puts people at risk for infection," she says.

While there are other foot-care clinics at shelters in Winnipeg that cater to people experiencing homelessness, not everyone feels welcome at them, she says.

And for people who spend time at Sunshine House — many of whom identify as LGBT — having foot care available in a safe place where it doesn't matter who you are can be crucial to accessing that care, says Watling.

Studies have found many LGBT people experiencing homelessness don't feel safe in shelters because of homophobic and transphobic violence that shelter providers are often not fully prepared to deal with, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness says.

"The need is so high. I wish there was more programs like this," Watling says.

As Sunshine House considers its options — like fundraising or partnering with other organizations that do similar work — Foy says Street Feet's future is still undecided.

"Best-case scenario is we find somebody, or a couple of people, who like us and who agree that this is a great program, and then just give us some money," he says.

"Worst-case scenario is we suspend programming entirely until we can find the money."

Troughton says losing the program would leave a gap in the community.

"It's pretty special," he says.

"I hope it doesn't get put under."