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Police, EMS will feel SOS loss

Police, EMS leadership say services will be impacted by the suspension of Shelter House's SOS program but say Local Health Integration Network should provide funding to save it.

THUNDER BAY -- Officials with the Thunder Bay Police Service and Superior North EMS believe the temporary loss of a Shelter House transportation will impact their services but both say they're not able to fund it. 

Shelter House will temporarily cease offering its Street Outreach Service (SOS) program on Apr. 1. The transportation service responds to the health needs of the homeless population, including patrolling to care for those living outdoors. 

The move has drawn criticism from organized labour and prompted the homeless shelter to launch a fundraising campaign to reinstate the program. 

Police deputy chief Sylvie Hauth said her department is bracing for summer, her department's busiest season in the south core streets. 

"Without them (SOS) there, I think we're going to see an increase, not just for us but for all emergency services," Hauth said. 

"They do bridge a very big gap in meeting those demands and meeting those challenges."

According to Shelter House staff, SOS costs $53 per transport. For police or ambulance transporting that same individual to hospital or detox would cost $200.  

Hauth recognizes the likelihood of increased costs to her department in the program's absence but more importantly, she believes SOS provides more appropriate care for those facing mental health and addictions issues.  

"The last thing we want is to be putting people in jail for intoxication or homelessness or for things that aren't police or criminal matters," she said. 

"My concern is that we can't stop doing the job that we do. The work will always be there. We have to pick up the slack. We will respond to the calls and we will be there to help people. However, we do need the program to work hand-in-hand and to reduce those calls and to have better efficiencies in terms of our resources as a policing agency."

Thunder Bay Police will be advocating on Shelter House's behalf to senior levels of government based on the program's "exponential" growth since it transported nearly 1,000 people as a seasonal pilot project in 2014. 

Shelter House figures (photo gallery above) show a 27 per cent decline in SOS use from 2015 to 2016, which its staff attributes to narrowing the program's focus to strictly aid those in crisis. Despite the change in policy, SOS still transported 4,623 clients last year while decreasing incarceration rates among the homeless population and handing out 21,696 amenities such as blankets and harm reduction tools. 

Hauth recognized SOS' benefit to both the police and the homeless population but confirmed the police is not considering funding any portion of the program. 

"I don't think it's the (police) responsibility in terms of funding, specifically, per say, in terms of emergency services," she said. 

"I think some of that has to be a bigger picture in terms of the LHIN (North West Local Health Integration Network) as well, looking at some of the health and benefits in terms of health issues."   

North Superior EMS chief Wayne Gates agreed agencies like the LHIN or the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board (DSSAB) are in a better position to fund SOS as emergency services have no flexibility to contribute funds to outside programs.

Although the impact of SOS on ambulance services is difficult to quantify, Gates anticipates his staff will feel its loss.   

"It's definitely a good service for people who have no other means. Often, they're left to cal 911 because they have no other means to get to emerg, even though it might not be a life-threatening emergency," he said.

"There is concern from EMS that the program is no longer available. It probably is going to become a bit of a burden for us."