Trust first step in connecting street community with health service

Outreach team and health "hubs" to improve health of vulnerable population

Katrina Jensen

There’s no shortage of free, clean needles, cookers and other drug paraphernalia in Victoria.

The problem is that each handout represents a missed opportunity for a conversation.

Ever since the Cormorant Street needle exchange closed its doors in 2008, referrals to other health services dropped off in tandem, said Murray Fyfe, medical health officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

The consequence? Increased trips to emergency, at much greater expense to the health-care system, he told Victoria city council.

On Dec. 6 Fyfe announced a $500,000 initiative that VIHA and its partners hope will provide a solution.

First, an outreach team of six to 10 people will hit the streets, trying to build relationships with the roughly 100 people in the street community with severe addiction and mental health challenges.

“This outreach team is just about engagement,” Fyfe said. “It’s about that trust development and getting people to the point where they are ready to start receiving some services.”

Outreach workers can refer them to one of two new health “hubs,” which represent the second half of the initiative. Rather than opening new centres, VIHA located the services in existing facilities that already cater to a vulnerable population.

The Access Health Centre at 713 Johnson St. is one of them.

It already offers a wide range of health, dental and counselling services.

It also offers harm-reduction equipment such as needles, cookers and condoms.

Currently when clients come in for supplies, the front-desk worker simply hands over the requested equipment.

By next spring, newly-hired staff will hand out the materials and use the opportunity to refer clients to other health services located in the same building.

“We’re not expecting our numbers to increase, but we’re expecting to better serve the people we do reach,” said Katrina Jensen, executive director of AIDS Vancouver Island, which runs the centre in partnership with Cool Aid Society.

The health centre will also add peer support and extra screening for blood-borne diseases to its list of services.

The second hub will be located in the sobering centre at 1123 Pembroke St. That facility already offers addictions counselling, rehabilitation services and harm-reduction supplies. Soon, VIHA will beef up these offerings with new services such as art therapy, links to housing and primary care on evening and weekends.

Coun. Marianne Alto, who participated in the planning process, praised the plan, noting that police, service providers and VIHA came together to build it.

“It’s really quite amazing … Organizations like this, in some circumstances, can be at odds,” she said. Instead, they set aside their own interests to find a common solution to a challenging problem.

The new model centres around the client’s need, rather than the agency’s capacity. “It’s really quite unique,” Alto said.

News about the new initiative has left Fernwood residents with mixed feelings about the health “hub” slated for their neighbourhood.

Community association president Tony Sprackett said he’s keeping an open mind, but is disappointed to learn of the initiative through the media.

“I’m happy that there is something afoot to improve these services, because there has been a gaping hole,” he said.

“But I have seen concerns from those neighbours (nearby) and I think they need to be consulted on it and at least made aware of what the plans are. Maybe it will have little impact (on) them. We just don’t know.”

The drug-using community has its own thoughts about the new model. Inclusion was top of mind for the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users (SOLID).

“We hope that this shift in service delivery results in renewing peer-run services and ensuring that the specialized knowledge and skill of our membership is recognized in the delivery of services, by and for people who use illicit drugs,” the SOLID board wrote in a prepared statement.

rholmen@vicnews.com

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