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How a new harm reduction team is offering help to people who need it most

Troy Shantz Nikki Thomson seeks out the very people most Sarnians try to avoid — homeless folk, the addicted, or the mentally ill.
Syringes and other supplies are offered through the harm reduction program at Lambton Public Health. Troy Shantz

Troy Shantz

Nikki Thomson seeks out the very people most Sarnians try to avoid — homeless folk, the addicted, or the mentally ill.

I’ve met her on a warm afternoon at Veterans Park and she’s describing a woman she knows who’s living in some bushes overlooking Sarnia Bay.

Thomson, a registered nurse, and Nicole Taylor, a social worker, are part of a mobile harm reduction team run by the Forest-based North Lambton Community Health Centre.

They tell me the woman has a wound that may need medical treatment and we set off toward the waterfront on foot. Thomson carries a backpack filled with granola bars and juice, new needles and safer use supplies, and substance use resources.

The harm reduction team also hands out a lot of Narcan kits — 300 in June alone. The program started with $350,000 in provincial funding last year and a mandate to reduce the personal and social harm caused by drug use, hepatitis C, and other lifestyle factors.

When we reach the waterfront we come to a cluster of manicured shrubs, and drop on our hands and knees to crawl inside. Within is an enclosed encampment, hidden in plain sight below the shiny office towers of Front Street.

Shopping and duffel bags are stacked neatly on a sheet laid over a deflated air mattress. The woman, in her 50s, sits cross-legged in the middle, puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette.

She’s been there three nights, she tells me.

“Even when I wasn’t homeless I’d come here,” she says, proud of her effort to make the space liveable.

Thomson chats quietly with her, almost whispering. They discuss ice cream flavours and some paperwork the woman needs help with.

The wound isn’t as bad as Thomson had feared. She’ll bring gauze and other medical supplies the next day. Nicole Taylor offers her granola bars while Thomson calls the Good Shepherd’s Lodge homeless shelter to inquire about a bed.

“There’s nothing right now but we know the drill,” she tells her. I’ll call back tonight and if there is something, I’ll come back.”

Food and shelter are always priorities for street people. But the forms and bureaucratic paperwork required everywhere can be a struggle.

“There’s a lot of barriers between those things,” Thomson says. “And if you have to call to confirm anything, well, you need a phone to do that. It’s a vicious cycle.”

The Harm Reduction and Hepatitis C Care Team, as it’s officially known, carries kits that can confirm hepatitis-C infection with a drop of blood. Soon they hope to have HIV test kits as well.

We head back to the team’s mobile van at the park, and Thomson prepares to visit a neighbourhood in the south end. A man approaches to ask about Narcan. He’s sceptical. He suspects the kits simply enable drug users and allow them to take even larger hits.

Thomson disagrees. She shares her experiences and in the end the man decides to take a kit.

“Just in case,” he says.

Sarnia-Lambton has addiction, opioid and substance misuse rates higher than the provincial average. The reasons are individual, Thomson says.

“I have never met anyone who woke up and said, ‘Today I’m going to start using drugs, I’m going to be homeless, I’m going to lose my children, I’m going to feel like an embarrassment to my family, I’m going to miss crucial events,” she says.

“It’s so individual… it could be one event that leads down that path, or it could be a multitude of smaller events.”

Thomson and the mobile unit van visit a different community in Sarnia-Lambton every day of the workweek, bringing supplies, a dose of empathy, and the message that people on the fringe are valued.

“We get out of the van and they want a hug. They share their stories — especially a lot of the young people — and how tough it is,” she said.

“It breaks my heart, and warms my heart at the same time.”

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