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Homeless make more than 26,000 visits to Alberta emergency departments each year

Edmonton emergency department patients who lack housing will soon get a chance to find permanent homes following their hospital stay, thanks to a new transition housing program.

Louis Hugo Francescutti

Louis Hugo Francescutti

“No one should leave emergency without a place to go and a roof over their head,” says Louis Hugo Francescutti, professor in the School of Public Health, ER physician and lead on the Bridge Healing Transitional Accommodation Program, also known as Asamina Kochi, which means “to try again” in Cree.

People experiencing houselessness make more than 26,000 visits to Alberta emergency departments each year, according to Francescutti. Those patients are treated for medical issues ranging from diabetes complications to overdoses to wound care but are then discharged back to the street or a homeless shelter without having their underlying needs addressed. Many wind up returning to hospital repeatedly.

The new program, funded by Alberta Health Services, aims to break that cycle. Before discharge from any Edmonton hospital emergency department, eligible patients will be offered temporary housing at a new building in the Glenwood neighbourhood run by Jasper Place Wellness Centre. People can stay for up to 30 days, access wraparound services like food security, mental health and employment counselling, and connect to permanent supportive housing.

A new transition program in Edmonton will provide people experiencing houselessness with a bridge from emergency care to support services and permanent homes. (Photo: Alberta Health Services)

A new transition program in Edmonton will provide people experiencing houselessness with a bridge from emergency care to support services and permanent homes. (Photo: Alberta Health Services)

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“It’s going to improve the lives of these individuals, and it has the potential to save the healthcare system money,” Francescutti says.

The program will be delivered for $80 a day, compared with costs of up to $1,000 a day to care for a patient in hospital, Francescutti notes.

“I actually don’t know of any other program that’s ever existed to solve this need,” says Taylor Soroka, vice president of strategy and engagement for the Jasper Place Wellness Centre, which offers housing, medical care, food security programs and employment to people in west Edmonton.

“This program is specifically for individuals who are heavy users of the emergency department that are often not using other community services, so it’s about opening that door and diverting them back into the community through housing.”

A broad community partnership of post-secondary students, volunteers, healthcare and housing staff, government and private donors came together to make the bridge healing plan a reality.

The idea was born in a graduate student classroom at the University of Alberta four years ago. At first, the focus was on building tiny homes, but that was eventually rejected as being too expensive and isolating. Instead, they chose to focus on offering temporary shelter and intensive programming as a stepping stone to permanent housing.

The plan has since received endorsements from the Alberta Medical Association’s section of emergency medicine and the Edmonton Police Service. The City of Edmonton approved $290,000 in May. Other supporters include Lions Club International, Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation, University Hospital Foundation, Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, and many private donors. Students from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology developed a marketing plan for Asamina Kochi and an app for use by emergency department staff to book rooms for their patients.

The donated time of volunteers has also been vital, worth an estimated $350,000 so far, Francescutti estimates. Joan McCollum, a retired project manager, has personally spent 600 hours on the project. McCollum says she hopes to see the Asamina Kochi model eventually adopted across the province.

“This model is scalable to any community, any location, any place in the world, really,” McCollum says. “We’ll be gathering data to determine the effectiveness of the program and areas that can be improved, but we feel very confident that this is going to succeed because we’ve had such strong support from the community and from the volunteers.

“It’s going to blossom into something much, much bigger.”

Twelve of the 36 new transition beds will be available to clients by the end of January 2023, according to AHS. The three 12-room net-zero buildings have self-contained, wheelchair-accessible suites, each with its own fridge, induction cooktop, shower, toilet and a Murphy bed.

Francescutti says a visit to the emergency department is often a sign that someone living rough is ready to make a change in their life.

“When someone who’s experiencing homelessness ends up in the emergency department, that’s a crisis because they’ve had to leave whatever limited possessions they have somewhere, they’ve had to cross the security guards and go through the triage process and wait. That’s when they’re reaching out, telling us, ‘I really need help.’ So that’s where we have to meet them,” he says.

| By Gillian Rutherford

Gillian Rutherford is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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