This article was originally published by The Calgary Herald.
Calgary’s homeless shelters and agencies are calling for support as they look to improve the palliative care of unhoused people nearing the end of their lives.
Many of the city’s traditional health-care facilities struggle to care for homeless Calgarians who are experiencing addiction and mental illness, said Bernadette Majdell, CEO of HomeSpace Society. So, a coalition of homeless serving organizations has been quietly providing palliative care at two units in HomeSpace buildings that were meant for long-term supportive living.
The buildings — The Clayton in Bowness that is operated by Alpha House and Murray’s House that is run by The Sharp Foundation in south Calgary — weren’t built for hospice care and don’t have all the resources or space needed.
“There’s no dedicated hospice care for the homeless population, so we are just making do with the facilities we already have,” Majdell said Thursday.
“We didn’t realize how badly the situation was getting with people being turned away from mainstream hospice care because they’re homeless or struggling with mental health and addiction.”
The alternative is often for the person to stay in hospital or die in the street, which robs them of dignity and choice at end of life because of their socioeconomic status, she said.
“Fundamentally, we believe no one deserves to die on the street,” said Majdell.
Currently, when a homeless person receives a terminal diagnosis, Calgary’s Allied Mobile Palliative Program (CAMPP) works to connect them with health services and helps with pain management. A mistrust of bigger systems such as health care and justice among the population can also deter them from seeking traditional medical help entirely.
The palliative care programs run out of Murray’s House and The Clayton have been largely successful, providing people with regular health care, social supports and food, said Majdell. Many of their lives have been extended beyond their initial prognosis.
Stephanie Milla, executive director of The Sharp Foundation, said it’s frustrating that every other major city in Canada has a specialized palliative program and the resources to better support homeless people.
“Demand in Calgary is quite high and we know that there’s a need, but we don’t seem to have enough beds to meet that need. So, oftentimes, we’re getting referrals from different parts of Alberta but we just don’t have a place for them in Calgary,” said Milla.
“Calgary is lagging behind . . . We hope to come closer to health equity for all Albertans.”
The Sharp Foundation has been working on a plan to transform a HomeSpace property in Forest Lawn into a multi-unit palliative care program by the winter. The units would have space for up to 27 residents and offer all-day health care for homeless Calgarians nearing the end of their lives.
The issue is funding.
The agencies have been meeting with Alberta Health Services to highlight it as a public health priority. Organizations can also use private donations to fund the project in the absence of government funding, Majdell said.
AHS said that supporting Albertans experiencing homelessness at the end of life can be complex. In a statement, AHS noted a number of end-of-life services.
“AHS provides palliative and end-of-life care in a variety of setting such as: patients’ home, hospital, hospice, long-term care or supportive living facility. For individuals experiencing homelessness, AHS works closely with community agencies to ensure individuals have access to quality end-of-life care,” AHS said in a statement, referencing their partnership with CAMPP.
The recently published “Palliative and End-of-Life Care Alberta Provincial Framework Addendum” acknowledges the need within AHS to better understand and meet the palliative care needs of diverse and marginalized populations.