For Thomas Duguay, the winter job he’s about to start is about more than just a paycheque.
This weekend, the experienced cargo-truck driver will get behind the wheel of a 40-foot bus that’s been repurposed to serve as a roving warming centre — and more — for vulnerable populations in Thunder Bay. “I took the job on because I feel like I’m helping out the city more than anything,” he says. It’s “something to better myself as well.”
The Care Bus’s first iteration hit the streets last winter, when NorWest Community Health Centres ran one daily for seven weeks in immediate response to difficult conditions under lockdown. Many public places, such as libraries and cafés, had closed, leaving those hoping to escape the cold with few options, says Juanita Lawson, CEO of NorWest, which is once again acting as project lead. “There was also concern about the impact COVID-19 had had on shelters and their capacity to provide safe and warm places,” she says.
Since then, many public institutions and restaurants have reopened. But, Lawson says, the Care Bus return remains crucial. As winter approaches, advocates in the north have been expressing safety concerns and calling for more social supports for the homeless population. “What we do know is that there is not enough affordable housing for individuals, access to detox services or addiction and mental-health services.”
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The bus doesn’t simply provide a warm space: Patrons have access to clothing, water, and drug-testing kits and can be dropped off at appointments and other destinations. “We will have two harm-reduction/outreach workers on the bus at all times with the bus driver,” Lawson says, adding that she hopes to see the return of on-board nurses, who helped dress wounds during the bus’s inaugural run. There are also plans to help laminate physical vaccine passports and shuttle people to vaccine clinics.
Last winter, NorWest rented from Thunder Bay Transit, but, according to the city, “COVID-19 impacts have created operational constraints which have necessitated the need to suspend the provision of transit charter service,” including the Care Bus. So, this year, it’s partnered with Kasper Transportation, which charters buses in northwestern Ontario and Manitoba and is offering the vehicle at a reduced rate. “Personally, I like to be involved and give back and build a good reputation and build a good rapport with the community,” says Kasper Wabinski, the company’s founder. The city last year funded a warming facility, but such locations don’t get rid of the need for the bus, Wabinski says, because Thunder Bay’s sprawling geography can make getting around tough: “It’s like a three-hour walk from Southside to the hospital. There’s a need for it.”
The extent of that need caught Lawson off guard last winter. The Care Bus logged 3,600 interactions with people in less than two months. “So we might have seen the same person every day, but, still, that was a client that was served that day,” says Lawson, explaining the figure. “We were incredibly surprised at that.” With another COVID-19 variant and underlying systemic issues — including the housing-affordability crisis — she expects to see even greater demand this year.
Previously, the bus ran on a fixed Thunder Bay Transit route; this time around, while it will operate from noon to 8 p.m. every day through late March and cover much of the same ground, it’ll also be going “to places where city transit doesn’t,” Lawson says. She’s in talks with a number of property owners to try to establish pick-up and drop-off points and is spreading news of the Care Bus’s return via the media, partner organizations, and word of mouth. “The other thing is, last year, what our staff did with the bus is they would stop, and they would actually get off the bus and go and say to people, ‘You need to get on the bus; it’s too cold out here.’”
Such interactions are something Duguay, who wanted a change from the dark isolation of his night shifts spent hauling heavy machinery, looks forward to. “I’m there for the nurses, any questions that the clients have that I can help out, any way I can help out, especially with the elders,” says Duguay, noting that, as an Indigenous person himself, he hopes to aid that population. Lawson doesn’t have demographic data from last winter but says it will be recorded this time so that programming can be adapted to serve needs. (A 2018 study from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness that surveyed 474 people experiencing homelessness in Thunder Bay found that 66 per cent identified as Indigenous.)
This mobile approach is a natural fit for NorWest, which already operates a primary-care service on wheels that brings health-care workers to patients. “It really does go to our principals of equity and access … and really that need to reach out,” Lawson says.
With funding for the next three months secured from the Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre and Service Canada’s Reaching Home Fund, which is managed through Lakehead Social Planning Council, Lawson has turned her attention to another goal: finding support to run the Care Bus permanently. But, as proud as Lawson is of what staff have accomplished, she says that society needs to address the big systemic issues that bring people on board in the first place.
“This is only one little piece,” she says. “We need to do more of that preventative care and provide people safe places to go [for the long-term] — and it’s not on a bus.”
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.