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Shelters often 'only resort' for homeless patients discharged from hospital, Siloam Mission CEO says logo 2023-01-31 Cameron MacLean
A man who suffered severe frostbite on his feet while experiencing homelessness and addiction says he doesn't feel shelters are a safe place to recover. © Justin Fraser/CBC A man who suffered severe frostbite on his feet while experiencing homelessness and addiction says he doesn't feel shelters are a safe place to recover.

The case of a man discharged from hospital with no home to go to after suffering frostbite on his feet reflects "a really huge gap" between the medical system and homelessness sector, says the director of one of Winnipeg's biggest shelters.

"People experiencing homelessness often have higher medical needs than we can actually take care of and shelter, and yet we are their last and maybe only resort," said Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, Siloam Mission's director.

On Saturday, a man named Robert, whose last name CBC is not revealing to protect his privacy, arrived at a temporary shelter on St. Mary's Road operated by St. Boniface Street Links after he was discharged from hospital.

At the time, Winnipeg was experiencing a prolonged period of extreme cold. 

Despite efforts by hospital officials to arrange for a shelter bed, including providing him a taxi slip, it took hours before Robert arrived at the shelter. 

Robert, who said he struggles with addiction to methamphetamine and bipolar disorder, told CBC on Sunday shelters "aren't a safe place to recover."

"We've gotta get more creative in the way that we respond to homelessness and addiction," he said.

Shelters are not equipped to care for people after they are discharged, said Whitecloud. Although Siloam Mission's shelter at 300 Princess St. has a room with three beds specifically for people coming out of hospital, those beds have not been open for that purpose recently due to the demand from women looking for space.

"We have a lot of people who are discharged from hospital and show up in a cab sometimes still wearing their hospital bracelets, still without appropriate clothing," Whitecloud said.

"But we also have people that are discharged from hospital with long-term care plans. That means that they're receiving home care in a shelter, or aftercare in a shelter."

There are no permanent medical staff at the site, which has a handful of physicians who volunteer their time for a total of eight to 12 hours per week.

Hospitals have plan for 'complex discharges': WRHA

A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority told CBC News it has a safe patient discharge policy which outlines process for "complex discharges," which includes people experiencing homelessness.

Clinicians work with patients to come up with a discharge plan, including consulting with a social worker and connecting with local shelters.

"Each patient and circumstance is unique, and factors such as shelter availability and their medical or psycho/social needs impact the discharge plan and how the patient is ultimately able to carry it out," the spokesperson said in an email.

"While we can't speak to individual cases, if clinicians review the plan with the patient prior to discharge and feel the patient is unsafe, they will not discharge and chart the reasons why."

The director of the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network says governments need to do more to create housing.

"Hospitals are not housing units and health-care services in Manitoba are in crisis," Shohan Illsley said in an email.

"Although hospitals do employ social workers that could be supporting patients with discharge strategies, you cannot refer people to services that are non-existent."

Blaikie Whitecloud also says the focus should be on creating more housing for people like Robert.

"If we get somebody in housing from that point, they can deal with their medical concern," she said. 

"If we get somebody housing from that point, they can deal with their addiction. But what we're doing right now is we're asking people to try to figure those things out without the adequacy of housing."

Blaikie Whitecloud would also like to see shelters funded to provide more medical services, like a primary health clinic.

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