Investing in Guelph's most vulnerable residents

A supportive recovery room

Alt=''Sleep. It’s a basic human need. Imagine what you’d feel like after five days without it. What if one of the reasons you’ve been unable to sleep is that you’re homeless? You’re afraid to sleep because your belongings might be taken, or you could be assaulted. Your situation is compounded by substance use and mental health issues. After two overdoses in as many days, you’re very sick. You’re too sick to stay in a shelter. Not sick enough to be in the hospital.

In Guelph, individuals who are homeless with mental health and addictions challenges are high users of emergency medical services (EMS) and police services. Often, as repeat clients of these services, they occupy beds in the hospital emergency room. Although these individuals benefit from having a place to sleep and medical monitoring, the community stakeholders interacting with them have acknowledged that the hospital emergency room is not the most appropriate place for them. Some of Guelph’s most vulnerable residents have been falling through the cracks.

That’s where an innovative collaboration of the Guelph Poverty Task Force, Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy, and Toward Common Ground elected to bring 40 stakeholder groups together to find a solution for clients they all have in common. More than 95 percent are homeless, are misusing drugs and alcohol, and are in crisis.

The solution was a well-thought-out plan for a collaboratively sponsored Supportive Recovery Room which would be located at Wyndham House. The plan became possible when the Ontario government announced funding for the opioid crisis. The Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network divested the base funding for a three-month pilot project.

The Supportive Recovery Room has the capacity for two individuals to experience the dignity of sleep. In fact, dignity and compassionate care are at the center of this harm-reduction approach. Clients, who are typically exhausted and struggling when they come in, are given a health assessment by a paramedic. Clients are also provided with food, pajamas, and an opportunity to take a shower and have their clothes laundered.

Guelph Wellington Paramedic Service provides 24/7 coverage for the Supportive Recovery Room. Paramedics can treat minor medical symptoms and assist clients with taking their medications. To date, seven paramedics have been involved in the supportive recovery room pilot that began in January and several more are being trained. Paramedics have indicated that participating in the pilot project has changed their attitudes and perspectives.

“Someone who hasn’t slept in five days and is afraid for their safety may not be on their best behaviour,” says Leanne Swantko, Deputy Chief of Guelph Wellington Paramedic Service. Lack of sleep can have devastating consequences on a person’s physical and psychological health and well- being, and increase the severity of existing medical and psychiatric conditions. The Deputy Chief recalls an individual, who after the opportunity to sleep, could be described as a really decent guy. He even apologized for his behaviour when he came in.

There are instances when someone comes to the Supportive Recovery Room and sleeps for up to 72 hours. An addiction clinician provided by Specialized Outreach Services is available to begin building a relationship with the client, provide education, and make linkages with community resources. As a result of this connection, some individuals have chosen to go directly to treatment after their short stay. Others, after a time of restorative sleep decide to seek out housing, make healthier choices, or move towards a positive life change. Not everyone makes a decision to seek out treatment after spending time in the Supportive Recovery Room, though somewhere down the road they return because the seed for change has been planted.

“Not being treated with dignity can have a huge impact on someone’s life,” says Jan Klotz, Project Manager of the program. She describes the importance of developing a safe, trusting relationship with clients, some who have stayed more than one time. Unfortunately, the Supportive Recovery Room has had to turn away almost one of every five people eligible to stay because both beds have been full.

“The Supportive Recovery Room is an example of harm reduction exemplified,” says Raechelle Devereaux, Executive Director of the Guelph Community Health Centre. “Where there was nothing else for these individuals before, there are now options. It cannot be underestimated that a person who may not have had rest for up for five days isn’t going to be thinking of treatment when they come in. After the dignity of sleep, the program has provided some with the opportunity for self-reflection. It may not be this time, but some time they may be ready to talk about taking the next steps in their recovery.”

More than 60 individuals have stayed in the Supportive Recovery Room to date, which is turning out to be a far better alternative for those too sick to stay in a shelter and too well to be in the hospital. It is an important investment in the most vulnerable members of the community.