How Thunder Bay’s SOS team takes outreach to the streets

Communication. Harm reduction. Humour. The Shelter House’s Street Outreach Services team provides services and support for vulnerable people year-round — now it’s pivoted to preventing COVID-19
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Jul 23, 2020
Tessa DeBruyne has worked as a team member with the Shelter House’s Street Outreach Services team for almost three years. (Charnel Anderson)



THUNDER BAY — Half an hour into Tessa DeBruyne’s shift on a balmy July morning, she gets a phone call from the Balmoral Centre detox facility in Thunder Bay. The caller requests a ride for one of their clients who has a 2 p.m. appointment at the Ontario Addiction Treatment Centre on Vickers Street. “Absolutely, I can do that for you,” says DeBruyne, an affable twentysomething with curly, shoulder-length brown hair and a background in social work.

DeBruyne has worked as a team member with the Shelter House’s Street Outreach Services team for almost three years. Normally, the SOS team is on the streets every day from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., offering mobile assistance to vulnerable people in Thunder Bay. Since the pandemic began, it has been repurposed to focus on preventing COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness, but the program’s intent remains the same: “The ultimate goal, I would say, is always harm reduction and safety,” says DeBruyne.

The street-outreach team fields calls from concerned citizens, businesses, and first responders and provides a variety of practical services, from transporting clients to and from shelters or to the detox facility, to handing out water and snacks or harm-reduction supplies, such as naloxone kits. Oftentimes, the SOS team’s duties include simply checking in on clients, many of whom are precariously housed or experiencing homelessness.

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What began in 2013 as a four-month-long cold-weather pilot project — originally designed to keep unhoused people off the street as much as possible during the frigid winter months, when temperatures regularly dip below -20 C — has evolved into a year-round initiative that not only provides services and support for vulnerable people, but also eases the pressure on first responders by relieving them in situations that don’t require medical or police services.

“Because, in reality, you don’t need police or paramedics to attend calls when people are simply sitting by a riverbank having a nap, right?” says DeBruyne.

the Shelter House building
The Shelter House’s Street Outreach Services team has been repurposed to focus on preventing COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness. (Charnel Anderson)

The relationship between the SOS team and paramedics is a mutual one, explains Shane Muir, community-paramedicine coordinator at Superior North Emergency Medical Services. “If SOS comes across a patient that’s in medical distress, they will call us, and we’ll come and respond, and vice versa,” says Muir. “We often come across a patient or client that may not need to go to the emergency department but just requires transportation or maybe support, and that’s when we call SOS.”

Since March, the program has been suspended, and its resources have been repurposed to respond to COVID-19: the SOS van, outfitted with a Plexiglas shield, is being used to transport vulnerable people who may have been exposed to COVID-19, and require testing or a place to self-isolate. Muir says these efforts have been a “vital component to the mitigation” of COVID-19 in the vulnerably housed community, “which is an area of priority for our pandemic response.”

Derek West, community-services branch inspector at the Thunder Bay Police Service,  explains that the Shelter House’s SOS program and its Kwae Kii Win Managed Alcohol Program (which provides supportive housing to people living with chronic alcoholism and homelessness) have filled a gap in social services.

Before programs such as these existed in Thunder Bay, he says, police officers had few options when dealing with high-risk populations, particularly people who were  intoxicated and experiencing homelessness: if someone isn’t in medical distress and did not commit a crime, officers can bring them to detox (which is routinely at capacity), the hospital (though West says that risks overwhelming the emergency department), or jail, which, advocates argue, criminalizes addiction.

“Police and EMS were the ones routinely called to help the most vulnerable, because no was else was doing it,” says West. “So, for us, [SOS] is a very valuable service, one that makes sure the most vulnerable in our community are served appropriately.”

the SOS van
The SOS van, outfitted with a Plexiglas shield, is being used to transport vulnerable people who may have been exposed to COVID-19. (Charnel Anderson)

Accessing the right services at the right time “saves lives and makes a difference down the road,” says West, adding that vulnerable people may feel abandoned or disenfranchised and that initiatives such as SOS — which aims to develop relationships with people and connect them with appropriate services — help foster “a sense of belonging that may have been lost along the way” and “may give them that sense to eventually change their situation.”

Clients recognize the silver passenger van, adorned with logos, and SOS team members, such as DeBruyne, are on a first-name basis with their clients, even calling them by affectionate nicknames. The SOS team’s ability to cultivate relationships with their clientele is appreciated by first responders like Muir. “You can see the communication really works, and people are comfortable with them,” he says. “They trust them, and they know they’re going to bring them to the place that they need to be.”

Besides “always maintaining fairness, kindness, and a very non-judgmental attitude,” DeBruyne says, her approach to fostering relationships also involves what she calls “social currency.”

“We have tools that are able to build rapport with our social currency. That’s basic things like food and water and the ability to transport,” says DeBruyne. “But my absolute favourite tool in my social-work toolbox is humour, and the other tool is music. Sometimes it’s just putting on a song that somebody likes on our way to the shelter or detox.” SOS team members don’t wear uniforms, nor do they have excessive security measures in place. “It’s very casual, and I think that’s a good thing for our people, too,” says DeBruyne.

When DeBruyne arrives at the Balmoral Centre detox facility, she realizes she’s there to pick up a client she saw just last week. She’s pleasantly surprised by how much healthier he looks, and she tells him as much. DeBruyne says one of the best parts of her job is reconnecting with people and seeing how much they’ve changed: “That’s pretty unreal.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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