‘A significant lack of options’: Calgary homeless agencies call for funding of palliative care beds
Violet Stonechild was without a home, living on and off the streets and trying to make ends meet when her entire world changed.
At 77-years-old, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and couldn’t afford to pay rent.
“I was homeless,” she said.
“Well, not homeless… I would get a place with room and board, get kicked out or they would raise the rent. You know, things were turning from bad to worse.”
Stonechild began to feel weaker and required 24-hour palliative care, but as a woman living on little to no income, she had few options.
There are only two palliative care beds in all of Calgary that cater specifically to people experiencing homelessness. The Clayton building in Bowness run by Alpha House has one bed and Murray’s House run by the Sharp Foundation in South Calgary also has an additional single space.
Both of the apartment complex-style buildings were built by the HomeSpace Society, but don’t have all the resources or space needed. The units were only intended to be used for long-term supportive living and never ‘end-of-life’ circumstances.
“There's a significant lack of options for some of our most vulnerable who are dealing with chronic illness,” said CEO of HomeSpace, Bernadette Majdell.
“So really our goal is to shed some light on the issue because we think it's very important for individuals to not only live with dignity, but be able to die with dignity and not on the streets.”
For the time being, members of Calgary’s homeless population suffering from a terminal diagnosis have the option to work with the Calgary Allied Mobile Palliative Program (CAMPP), which connects them to health services.
Majdell explained however that bigger hospice systems are often a major issues for the city’s most vulnerable.
“Those that we work with who are experiencing homelessness have a general mistrust of big systems within the city and the province, including justice and health care,” she said.
“So you know, whether it's that they weren't always treated with respect, or mistreated, or doubted, you know they just don’t feel a sense of comfort in those spaces.”
The palliative care programs at Murray House and The Clayton have been successful in providing regular health care services, social support and food.
For Stonechild, it’s given her the ability to rest and enjoy her final days.
“I’ve been treated pretty great here, they take care of me, they look after me and come and ask me how I’m doing or if I need anything,” Stonechild said.
“Of course I have a long list of what I want, but can’t have too,” she chuckled.
CALGARY IN NEED OF HOMELESS PALLIATIVE CARE PROGRAM
Although Calgary’s two palliative care beds for those experiencing homelessness are creating an impact, there is still not enough space to go around and more funding is needed.
Stephanie Milla, the executive director of he Sharp Foundation, said it’s particularly frustrating that every major city in Canada has a palliative care program in place for its most vulnerable, except for Calgary.
“Calgary seems to be lagging behind, in fact Edmonton has a program just like it, and Calgary doesn't seem to have more than two beds available,” she said.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) has been generally supportive and regularly meeting with homeless agencies, but Milla adds that more support is needed in the Calgary region.
“We need to get everybody at the table and talking and have funding available so that we can make the program happen and I do think that AHS has the intention to support it. I do believe that they see the need, so why not now?”
Moving forward, the hope is to obtain four more palliative care beds in Calgary, specifically designated for the city’s most vulnerable.
A building located at 2404 50 Street in the southeast community of Forest Lawn is currently being renovated with the goal of providing that space. HomeSpace bought the property from the City of Calgary.
Renovations on the complex are being funded by the federal government through its Rapid Housing Initiative, but about $900,000 is still needed to run a palliative care service.
In a statement to CTV News, Alberta Health Services (AHS) describes its ability to support people experiencing homelessness at the end-of-life as ‘complex.’
It adds that the type of care for people with concurrent disorders who are experiencing mental health or substance abuse disorders can be more challenging.
For individuals experiencing homelessness, AHS works closely with community agencies to ensure individuals have access to quality end-of-life care,” the statement read.
“This includes strong collaborative relationships with the Calgary Allied Mobile Palliative Program (CAMPP) and the Palliative Care Outreach and Advocacy Team (PCOAT) in Edmonton."
Palliative care services include symptom assessment and management by Registered Nurse Case Managers, support for patients’ and family members at end-of-life, and coordinating access to health care providers.
AHS adds that the recently published Palliative and End-of-Life Care Alberta Provincial Framework Addendum recognizes the need to better understand and meet the palliative care needs of diverse and marginalized population groups.