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Blueprints for new BWH withdrawal management beds remain unapproved while addictions climb

The best case scenario now is that construction will start this year and be finished by the end of 2025.
Donna Morreau, integrated director of mental health and addiction services, with Jack Vanderveen, director of facility and support services, pictured in this file photo taken last year inside the space where Bluewater Health's withdrawal management facility is expected to go. The space is now gutted and ready for construction but the province has yet to sign off on the plans.

While the Sarnia-Lambton community grapples with a tragic combination of addiction and homelessness, the local hospital continues to wait on the province to approve architectural drawings for a new withdrawal management facility. 

A meeting is scheduled for Wednesday with the Ministry of Health and Ontario Health officials to iron out details to convert the lower three storeys of the Russell Street building that belongs to Bluewater Health (BWH).

“We hope to hear soon after that and then we can go ahead to tender,” says Donna Morreau, BWH’s integrated director of mental health and addictions.

This is the facility that community leaders have been fighting 30 years to get. 

In 2022, the province of Ontario announced $12.5 million for additional early-stage recovery beds in Sarnia-Lambton.  Back then, the hope was that a new facility or “addictions hub” would open this year to ease the community’s dire situation.

But the reconstruction process is moving at a snail’s pace.

The best case scenario now is that construction will start this year and be finished by the end of 2025, said Morreau.

The architectural plans have been revised more than seven times.

The new addiction hub will not be a longer term residential facility like Westover Treatment Centre in Thamesville or Brentwood Recovery Home in Windsor.

Instead, the new hub will bring together the seven existing detox beds at Bluewater Health that allow for weeklong stays, and the 12 beds at Ryan’s House on Exmouth Street where people recovering from addiction can live up to 30 days, then add five more.

Existing beds will close when the hub opens, Morreau said, meaning that the community will have a total of five new beds to offer people who want to kick their drug habit.

“This is not a residential rehab,” Morreau stressed. “We’ll be expanding from 19 to 24 beds, all at Bluewater Health.

However, even five more beds would make a difference, particularly in light of the numerous overdoses reported at Rainbow Park where about 50 people live in a highly controversial encampment.

Seven overdoses were reported at Rainbow Park in the last seven days, Sarnia Police Chief Derek Davis said during an online “town hall” held Monday morning about local homelessness.

Fortunately, there were no fatalities, he said.

"In our encounters from a police perspective, homelessness is clearly a challenging issue but that also comes with a high percentage of addiction as an underlying causation," Chief Davis said.

But not all the news is as frustrating.

A new collaboration between Lambton County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Bluewater Health starts this week.

The new CHIC (Community Health Integrated Care) program will operate 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. seven days a week with the intent that addiction workers and paramedics will be available to Sarnia-Lambton’s population experiencing homelessness and addiction.

CHIC workers will travel by car, by ebike and on foot to work with clients where they are, including Rainbow Park, said Morreau.

“We hope to see increased wound care, link them to primary care, make referrals, let them know what services there are here to help them, assist them with issues around addiction,” she said.

“It’s one more help in real time.”

A mobile care bus introduced last year already provides nursing care in the parking lot at the Inn of the Good Shepherd and five other places in rural Lambton several times a week, and is taking pressure off the Emergency Department.

Mobile care is making a significant difference but the CHIC program will assist clients where they are, including those living in tents in local parks, Morreau said.

One outreach volunteer who works regularly with the homeless says it’s her hope that CHIC will “stabilize the situation.”

“The new CHIC unit cannot get on the road fast enough,” said Margaret Capes. 

Capes said she was surprised that Monday’s homelessness town hall didn’t provide time for any questions from the public.  A few media questions were accommodated in the hour-long town hall but none from the public although they were invited to submit questions prior to the event.

Town hall panelists included nine program managers who deal frequently with the homeless population and Sarnia Police Chief Derek Davis.

Info shared during the town hall:

• Police have tracked approximately 300 extra hours spent in Rainbow Park since April 1;

• Since Jan. 1, the Integrated Mobile Police and Community Team (IMPACT) has had 553 encounters with homeless people.  Of those, 83 per cent suffered from addiction;

•  Lambton County’s homelessness outreach team has successfully assisted 40 people living rough into permanent housing;

• Since the start of the pandemic, Lambton County workers have found more permanent housing for almost 700 people who were precariously housed, in emergency or transitional housing;

• 321 people are on the by-name list as of May 31, which means they are precariously housed (couch surfing), in transitional or emergency housing or sleeping outside;

• Of those 321, 70 people report sleeping outside at some point in the last month;

• Only about one quarter of those sleeping rough reported consistently sleeping outside last year but that has changed to three quarters since the Rainbow Park encampment was established in February;

• The city’s bylaw enforcement officers visit Rainbow Park several times a day to monitor conditions in the park related to garbage, human waste, drug paraphernalia, open burning and weapons, and take immediate action to clean up if a risk is posed;

• Contrary to the rumor mill, there is no evidence that busloads of people experiencing homelessness are arriving from out-of-town.

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