Toronto·BRAMPTON

Peel health service appeals for more funding to help people experiencing homelessness

Homeless Health Peel, a primary care service run by nurses, will soon lose its COVID-19 funding from the region. It says hundreds of vulnerable people will suffer if it doesn't get more money to expand its operations.

Homeless Health Peel has offered primary care to more than 1,200 clients throughout pandemic

Bill Smith, currently housed in a shelter hotel in Brampton, says the care he's received from HHP has made a significant difference. (Grant Linton/CBC)

A nursing and primary care service for people experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable communities in Peel Region is scheduled to lose its funding in a matter of months, and is asking the province to help it keep operating and expand its role.

Homeless Health Peel (HHP) says its funding from the region's  COVID-19 emergency response budget runs out in March. According to Peel, the contract for HHP and those of other similar services operating the region, will end in June. That means people like Bill Smith, who is now living in a Brampton shelter hotel, might not have access to that care.

"I ended up having a couple aneurysms in my leg, couldn't work, so I ended up having to go to hospital," Smith told CBC News. 

Smith lost his job in the tourism sector as a result of the pandemic and has been precariously housed for most of it. Through HHP, Smith receives regular check-ups from his assigned nurse, Shaunna Demars. The service, which consists of small, dedicated teams of nurses, also helps organize his medication.

Smith says the health care, mental health support and medication he receives from HHP, particularly from his nurse Shaunna Demars, 'lifts the spirits.' (Grant Linton/CBC)

"This assistance has been really good for me, and I'm sure it's been good for other people," Smith said. "It made me feel comfortable and reassured."

Smith visits with HHP every Tuesday. Without it, he said, he would have to visit the emergency department or a random walk-in clinic in the city. But he wouldn't receive the same attention, he said, as he does with Demars.

'Constant contact'

"Shaunna cares, not just about me, but about the other people here," Smith said. "It makes me feel like I want to come here; she'll lift the spirits.

"If you don't have that constant contact with somebody, it's different," he added.

HHP began in December 2020 as one of the services contracted by the Region of Peel for its COVID-19 isolation and recovery program. It's now looking for sustained funding to create a shelter health network. Its nurses provide care at various shelters in Brampton and Mississauga, including Brampton's COVID-19 isolation centres.

While it began for individuals in the shelter system, it expanded to all individuals who were precariously housed, its founder and clinical director Clinton Baretto said HHP nurses also visit encampments and overflow hotels for primary care assessments.

"If we don't provide that for individuals like Bill, who's going to?" Baretto said.

"This is health service for a population that is often forgotten that really needs to be front and centre as we move forward from the pandemic," he said.

"The most heartbreaking thing about the patients we see is they've been promised a lot over the years. It's time that we actually dedicate some service to them."

Nurse practitioner Clinton Baretto, the founder and clinical director of Homeless Health Peel, says sustained funding for the service will reduce health inequities in the community. (Grant Linton/CBC)

HHP will formally request that Peel ask the province to provide more funding at a regional council meeting on Thursday.

Baretto said if the service isn't available, the health of people experiencing homelessness in the region will suffer, as many of them don't have identification, health cards, or any other documentation that would allow them to see a family doctor or visit a walk-in clinic.

"So the only real place for them to get their care is at a hospital," Baretto said. "But the way they're treated, they end up waiting eight to 10 hours, so they don't end up going until they're on death's doorstep. Whereas with having access to us, they can come any time whenever they're ready," he said.

Baretto said HHP has served more than 1,200 clients in the last year, and averages 15 to 20 patients a day. 

"The nurse is at the centre of care, and that's really important for someone experiencing homelessness, to be able to navigate," Baretto said. "You need a good primary care nurse to help you guide that."

Saving money while providing 'dignity and care'

HHP's request for funding has gone to the City of Brampton, the Region of Peel, and the Ontario Ministry of Health.

Brampton city council passed a motion last month to support HHP's work and ask the Ministry of Health for funding on its behalf.

HHP's spokesperson, Ameek Singh, added that the service actually saves taxpayers' money, saying the cost of keeping a patient in hospital is thousands of dollars per day, while it costs only a few hundred dollars a day to care for them through Homeless Health Peel.

"I really hope that all the folks at Queen's Park look at this and go: 'Yes, this is something that will save us money and provide dignity and care to a marginalized population.'"

Rowena Santos, who sits on Brampton city council, is advocating for more funding for HHP.

"We found it [HHP] was effective to serve the needs of the most vulnerable in the community," she said. "It links them with proper health services, medication, mental health support, which ultimately ends up being a longer term solution to keep them off the streets."

With files from Grant Linton

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