Surrey councillor Brenda Locke says Surrey Memorial Hospital does “often” release homeless patients, but she says the hospital and the health authority do “try very hard to work with the service agencies.”
Chilliwack’s Mayor Ken Popove alleges in a March 5 letter to Fraser Health that two patients, still requiring medical care, were discharged from Surrey Memorial and transported by taxi to a Chilliwack homeless shelter.
“A homeless shelter is no place for a person with health concerns or special medical needs,” Popove wrote. “Discharging patients into homeless shelters when they still require some level of care is not an acceptable practice.”
Fraser Health confirmed to Black Press Media that it has received Popove’s letter and are looking into specific concerns.
Locke said she’s tried to get additional information from the hospital and local service providers.
“It’s a real challenge for them and certainly for people on the street, but they try very hard to work with the service agencies, I know that,” Locke said. “It’s a challenge for sure and we have to get a better system because too often people are released to the street with no support systems around them.”
Dixon Tam, a Fraser Health spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that when a patient is “medically stable and ready to leave the hospital, we make every effort to find them suitable housing if they don’t have a home to return to.” He added that hospital beds are reserved for patients with the highest needs.
“A discharge transition from an emergency room to a shelter would only happen when the patient is deemed medically stable, community services (if needed) have been set up, and if it has been agreed to by the shelter staff.”
Locke said she spoke to local service providers on Thursday about homeless patients in general being discharged and about the incidents Popove alleges in his letter.
“[The service providers] are still getting people coming into shelters with hospital wristbands, so straight out of hospital into emergency weather shelters… even in Surrey.”
However, Tam said it is “very unusual to transition a patient into a different community unless they ask for this, or if it is the only community with housing that meets their needs at the time.”
Locke said that people “absolutely must be kept in their own community.”
“Now, in this case, we don’t know if this person had family in Chilliwack and asked to go there – we don’t know that – or that their family asked for them to go there.”
The real challenge, Locke said is the lack of social infrastructure in Surrey.
“It’s tough. We have a deficit, that’s the biggest problem,” she said. “We have a huge deficit of social housing and especially transitional housing. it’s one of those things that… The hospital is kind of between a rock and a hard place in some ways, but on the other hand, they are people and we have to find places for them to go.”
Citing the 2017 Surrey Homeless Count in Surrey data brief for the Surrey Homelessness and Task Force, Locke said 52 per cent of the 602 homeless people surveyed had used the emergency room regularly.
“They use hospitals a lot. That’s one of the challenges, I think, Surrey Memorial faces because there is only one hospital in Surrey. They get a lot of people with challenges,” she said. “Maybe there’s an ability in Vancouver where they have a couple more hospitals where they can kind of move around a bit. Maybe some are going to St. Paul’s and others are going to VGH. But in Surrey, it’s a one-stop shop.”
Locke said she hopes these alleged incidents also shine a light on the need for the need for another hospital in Surrey.
“Fraser Health, and especially Surrey Memorial, have a significant challenge.”
Premier John Horgan said the incident was “startling,” while Health Minister Adrian Dix said he would follow up on the allegations.
“We have very significantly increased our investment in health care in the last number of years but that doesn’t mean that in every case things are perfect,” Dix said during question period.
Locke said she’s hopeful that as the city and province work together to build more supports that there will be the ability to send homeless patients to a place that has better wraparound services.
“But certainly [the Emergency Weather Response] does not provide the kind of services that are required for a person that is leaving hospital with a serious health care need.”
– With files from Jennifer Feinberg and Tom Fletcher