Thunder Bay

It filled 'unmet needs' in the community, but Friday is the last day for the care bus in Thunder Bay, Ont.

The care bus filled a lot of "unmet needs" in Thunder Bay, Ont., by providing a safe, warm place for people in need as shelters and warming centres hit capacity throughout the winter, said NorWest Community Health Centre's chief executive officer Juanita Lawson.

The initiative was created in response to a need for access to warm spaces, necessary supplies and services

Two outreach workers with NorWest Community Health Centres in Thunder Bay, Ont., stand in front of the care bus, a full-size city bus staffed with harm reduction workers, and filled with essential supplies like food, water, clothes and PPE. (Submitted by Selina Gunn)

The care bus filled a lot of "unmet needs" in Thunder Bay, Ont., by providing a safe, warm place for people in need as shelters and warming centres hit capacity throughout the winter, said NorWest Community Health Centre's chief executive officer Juanita Lawson.

People could also receive food and water, harm reduction and necessary supplies like warm clothes and personal protective equipment, and get free transportation to other services and warm places in the city. Lawson said even basic health care was provided at times.

But Friday will be the last day of operation for the care bus.

"It was a real blessing to be able to offer that service," Lawson said. "It's also really highlighted to us that we still have a lot of work to do at a community level."

Between its first day of operation in March and its last on April 16, Lawson estimated the care bus will have engaged with people nearly 3000 times.

Created during a time of crisis

The idea for the care bus came from grassroots activist group Not One More Death amidst growing concerns about people in the community at risk of death because of limited or no access to warm spaces to temporarily get out of the cold.

In February, shelters in the city were put on a static bed list after one person staying at the Thunder Bay Shelter House tested positive for COVID-19. Then, an outbreak fo COVID-19 was declared in the city's vulnerable population just as temperatures were set to plunge into the minus 30s. Local street patrol groups had also reported the deaths of at least five people in the streets of the city since Christmas.

"That's where all of that energy came from, is a place of love and care for people's lives and well-being," said Carolyn Whipp.

Whipp volunteers with Not One More Death, and was involved in the development of a series of proposals made to the city to support people experiencing homelessness that could literally meet people where they were at and provide the services they wanted.

"These are usually folks who have a lot of movement in their lives, but the care bus was kind of always their constant."

Whipp added, "that is the hard, heartbreaking part about it not continuing."

Community agencies to look for ways to offer permanent service

Juanita Lawson of NorWest added one of the main takeaways from the care bus was the need for community agencies to expand their outreach work to meet people where they are and help connect them to services.

The care bus service was already extended once for a period of two weeks at the beginning of April, but Lawson said it was no longer possible to keep offering the service.

"What we're committed to doing is take a look at how we might be able to offer a service or find funding for a service that we would build into our community for an ongoing basis," she said. 

"But that's going to take time."

A few months ago, Thunder Bay was hit by a series of crises. Temperatures plunged, overnight shelters were placed on a static bed list, and an outbreak of COVID-19 was declared within the vulnerable population. But from that period .. one solution came out that many held up. The care bus. The idea came from the activist group Not One More Death .. and it was brought to life by NorWest Community Health Centres with funding from the social services administration board. 3:56

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