Homeless people must too often depend on handouts, charity for their food.

Homeless people must too often depend on handouts, charity for their food.

June 6, 2011

OTTAWA — Many Canadians have health outcomes similar to people in Third World nations, says the president of the Canadian Medical Association.

That includes the homeless, the rural poor, the disabled, single parent families and those living on reserves, Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull said at a May 17 fundraising banquet for an inner city ministry to the homeless.

Turnbull said Canadians should not only be seeking equal access to health care services for poor and homeless people, but also equality of outcome.

“The poor pay for their poverty with their health,” he said.

The annual Hunger Banquet was to raise money for the Shepherds of Good Hope. The ministry helps 4,000 families a month with food and clothing. Every day, 1,600 receive food from its downtown facility.


It also provides emergency shelter, drug and alcohol abuse recovery and harm reduction programs, as well as long-term shelter and care programs through the Ottawa Inner City Health Program (OICHP).

Turnbull has been awarded the Order of Canada for founding the OICHP.

The poor, he told the banquet, constantly experience violations of their human rights. Their unequal access to education, nutrition, good housing and other social goods undermine the economy and burden the health care system.

“Many homeless people use health services on a disproportionate basis, yet their health needs are not being addressed,” he said.

Turnbull estimated $40 billion could be saved in health care costs by directly addressing concerns such as poor housing, lack of education, poor nutrition and low income.

“We’re paying an awful lot of money just to enhance the health care system,” he said.

The causes of chronic homelessness include deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, misguided social policy, mental illness and a lack of resiliency to traumatic or stressful circumstances, he said.

Turnbull said about 300,000 Canadians live in homeless shelters like the Shepherds of Good Hope and one third are under the age of 18. Their “nutritional status is a huge problem.”

Another 450,000 to 500,000 homeless people do not avail themselves of the shelters.


Turnbull described OICHP as a community initiative drawing together the expertise of a number of groups to “take health services right to the homeless.”

OICHP offers both “wet” and “dry” residential treatment programs. In the 16-bed “wet” program, alcoholics are allowed to drink quantities of alcohol in controlled settings that stabilize their condition.

Though Turnbull admitted the “wet” program is highly controversial, the OICHP has saved the system about $3 million a year in reduced Emergency Room visits.

Once their alcohol addiction is stabilized, those in the program take advantage of other programs.

OICHP also established permanent housing for the chronically homeless, Turnbull said. In this stable environment, they cook for themselves, play euchre and organized to have a “mayor” to represent them.

  • 95 per cent have complied with medical treatment.
  • 91 per cent have used hospitals and ER appropriately.
  • 89 per cent are having their primary health needs addressed.
  • 85 per cent has seen a reduction in high risk behaviours.