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Helping people where they’re at: Rooming House Outreach at Somerset West Community Health Centre

Thursday, December 3, 2015

By Erin Dej, published in Ask Me Ottawa

I met Joanna on a balmy afternoon in July in the entry way of Somerset West Community Health Centre (SWCHC). Geared up with bottles of water, toiletries and pillows to give out we set off to visit four of Ottawa’s rooming houses. A rooming house by definition consists of individual rooms with five rooms for every one shared bathroom and sometimes a shared kitchen.

Joanna has been a nurse practitioner with SWCHC for over ten years. Previous to this she worked in the shelter system, but recognized the greater health needs of rooming house tenants. Along with the Rooming House Outreach program, she provides medical care for those who use the walk-in clinic, seeing people as their primary provider if they find it difficult to keep appointments. Her passion for her work comes from her patients who are among those with the poorest health conditions in Ottawa. Joanna says that some of the people she meets in the rooming houses haven’t seen health care in many years so she does her best to “patch people up” and begin to build positive and trusting relationships to address longer-term health issues.

There is lots of work to do. Those who live in rooming houses do not qualify as homeless but many require significant supports to cope with daily life, such as food, access to a telephone and internet, employment support and medical care. As Joanna points out, several studies have shown that unfortunately rooming house tenants have the same poor health as individuals living in homeless shelters.

On our visit we encountered many people who are facing a whole host of medical challenges – from managing HIV medication, respiratory problems, coping with seizures, to struggles with anxiety and depression – Joanna and the physicians and staff at SWCHC deal with it all. Throughout our visit Joanna compiles a list of everything she needs to do when she gets back to the Centre: book specialist appointments, order tuberculosis tests, contact someone’s family doctor or support worker, and fill out requisition forms. There are successes too. Upon opening his door, one gentleman proudly showed off his arm that had developed a severe rash, proclaiming to Joanna “My arms are healed thanks to you!”

It can sometimes be hard for Joanna to find her patients and connect them with resources. Many have mobility issues and some are reluctant to visit doctors. SWCHC accommodates people’s needs wherever 

possible. They accept individuals who don’t have health cards. Ann, the medical office assistant, coordinates appointments so they only have to make one trip to the Centre. And staff members such as Joanna spend time chatting with people in their homes, at social events, and on the sidewalk; wherever they are comfortable.

As we make our way through the hallways, knocking on each and every door to make sure everyone is ok, we meet a gentleman with a swollen leg. Sensing his uneasiness with medical procedures Joanna exclaims: “Tell me how I can help”. This is what the Rooming House Outreach program does. Joanna works with people where they’re at. There is still work to be done. Joanna calls for us to recognize rooming houses as part of the homelessness continuum so that tenants can access the resources they need. Until safer and cleaner affordable housing options become available, Joanna will continue to meet with people where they’re at, and offer support.