I doubt that I’m the only resident in Port aux Basques who has seen someone in distress, perhaps homeless, walking around while dragging a travel suitcase that holds all of their worldly belongings. It’s a small town hazard, the belief that we have been blessed on the Southwest coast with many opportunities and resources at our disposal. We support each other regularly and we don’t have the problems with homelessness that big cities tend to have. So to see someone in such dire straits is shocking. It leaves one wondering how could someone that is so vulnerable fall through the cracks in our region.
There are gaps in our safety nets for healthcare and mental wellness that are showing in our community, and are only growing wider as the years pass. It’s not just me noticing. There have been others who have seen someone wandering, someone perhaps in mental distress. My editor (René J. Roy) and I did a bit of digging to investigate what could be done given the resources in our region, and the cracks in the system were as deep as a coal mine.
For two weeks we called the Gateway Women’s Centre, the Salvation Army, and the Canadian Red Cross. The response? Answering machines, and just one callback, from the Gateway Women’s Centre this past Sunday, almost after two weeks of calling.
The answering machine at the Salvation Army Citadel tells the caller that they cannot take your call at this time, and provide a number for emergencies, but to otherwise leave a message for a call back. Calling the Canadian Red Cross headquarters gives you another answering machine, telling you if it’s something serious like a house fire, there is a 1-800 number to call, but the office is closed during the pandemic. The Gateway Women’s Centre results in another answering machine, letting you know they are closed for two weeks, suggesting you call another 1-800 number for domestic violence.
These are the recordings that the vulnerable are presented with when they call in their darkest hour – not a live person to turn to, but a machine that offers the promise of a return call, though the chances of that seem to be one in three. There’s always 911 of course, but the RCMP detachment in Port aux Basques has been short staffed for some time now, and unless it’s an emergency are they really going to drive out from Stephenville for a homeless person wandering the streets?
The Gateway Women’s Centre did call back to our offices on a Sunday afternoon, and we were informed by the office administrator that they were closed for two weeks for vacation. Additionally, they are also currently understaffed when it comes to meeting the needs of our community.
The Salvation Army Captain in Port aux Basques, David Harvey, was contacted last week. He did note that, in the past, people found wandering on our streets have been provided with help through the Salvation Army many times, including with food and temporary lodging. Harvey is new to his role with the Salvation Army in Port aux Basques, replacing Lt. Maurice Collins. He was still in quarantine when efforts were made to find an elderly woman help.
“She’s been to every agency and organization in the community. I think there are some mental health issues, as well as health issues. I think that’s part of the problem, is trying to find resources, I’m just surmising, trying to find the resources that would actually help her,” offered Harvey.
The temporary relief the Salvation Army provides, which is no doubt helpful, is really just a bandage on something that needs a skilled surgeon.
“One night’s stay in a hotel really doesn’t solve the problem. It’s a very short gap for a very short period of time. I think that the resources really need to be somewhat to do with mental health, and social services, in more of a long-term. And whether the individual is willing to accept any of that, I think that is part of the problem as well,” said Harvey.
Organizations like the Gateway Women’s Centre would seem to offer the most qualified help in such a situation, particularly with soliciting help to deal with mental health treatment. But under-staffing and holiday closures means limitations on what it can offer.
Harvey did note that residents are encouraged to turn to the Salvation Army if they witness someone facing such a struggle, though they are more geared towards the short term.
“We can have general conversations, but that’s as usually as far as it goes,” explained Harvey. “The folks that should be able to provide for emergencies for individuals with mental health issues… We will certainly do what we can, but the resources only go so far unfortunately.”
Even if it’s understandable, who are we able to turn to when faced with a series of answering machines during a crisis? Are we to wait for return calls a week or two later, long after we see someone in crisis and needing immediate intervention? Is 911 really the best we can do in this region when it comes to after- hours mental health crisis or homelessness?
In fact, a private phone call to the Port aux Basques detachment revealed that the woman we spotted did, in fact, have a home to go to, even if she chose not to do so. Our own eyes tells us that sheltering in a dirty bus stop is not a choice easily made, and whether her wanderings on our streets are due to financial hardship or mental illness, something needs to be done to help people in dire circumstances.
The cracks in our social supports in our community are starting to show, and they need to be patched before more of our vulnerable are left out in the cold.
Until then, let’s hope that nobody else is spotted wandering around in obvious distress unless it’s on a weekday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If it’s a weekend or a holiday, you might be out of luck.