In the 1980s the health system raged with a fractious debate! What to do with Mental Hospitals? While there had been horror stories for years about abuse of ECT procedures, the Jack Nicholson film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, released in 1976, no doubt added much to the debate! The film had humorous moments but was heart-attack serious in its depiction of therapies and drug abuse. The debate ended with mental hospitals being closed in Canada with many patients then becoming residents of Level 4 facilities in the long-term care system or elsewhere.
As the debate raged on, those of us who were a bit cautious warned: “we know that some of the practices in some of the old mental hospitals left much to be desired. But full-on closure must also be coupled with seriously strengthened social systems; otherwise, many who used to be admitted to these hospitals will now be on the street…. homeless.” That caution was not heeded and for the last 30-plus years the homeless population has been increasingly numerous and visible.
The Social and Mental Health Systems have never been developed to the level that one could proudly boast of excellence. Indeed, in New Brunswick the systems, as noted in publicity with cases in recent years, have been seen to be full of holes.
Adding insult to injury, the war on drugs was lost many years ago and the growth of drug abuse and addiction seems to be out of control.
In the mid-1990s, local businessman and philanthropist, Stan Cassidy, said that his next project was going to be some strategy to “get kids off the street.” He further told me of the hundreds of kids even at that time 25 years ago, living in extremely dangerous and substandard conditions. Regrettably, Stan passed away before he could see his dream realized.
And for the past 25 years we had homelessness in the news and before the public intermittently, particularly in the summer as trail users get concerned or in the early winter when the shelters are full and people sleep in sub-zero temperatures in tents and alleyways. A number of groups have come forward to help by providing use of unused real estate, beds, furnishings, bedding. Some churches have been extraordinary in their support.
But we still have the issue and it is not going away and not getting smaller. How to deal with it?
A principle of foreign aid and missionary work is: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Everyone called “homeless” has a story; everyone is a human being, some mother’s pride and joy; mothers had goals for her children to grow up to be self-sufficient, successful, yet here they are. They are, just like the person with a fractured leg or other health issue, human beings who need a way up and out. It is doubtful that anyone wants to sleep in a tent the rest of their lives, however modern it may be!
Fredericton is the capital city of this fair province and it should be leading the way in dealing with the homeless issue.
So along comes Marcel LeBrun, known in the province as the young engineer who developed an innovative software package that attracted the IT Sector. He is still youthful, bright, high energy, not given to repeating old mistakes, given, as his business career attests, to finding an issue and fixing it. No matter what the obstacles.
Somehow, he was smitten with this awful problem that seemed to be a blight on the image of the capital city. So, he started to do his own research. Using the skills he honed in business and engineering, he did the obvious: let’s find some success stories and see if there are some ideas we can use. So, he went to San Francisco and met with the leader of Code Tenderloin, a program that takes persons off the street, including hardened gang members, gets them in out of the cold, works with them to figure out what makes them tick, then wraps a program of support around them. The success in getting people off the street and into a new normal has been phenomenal.
He then checked out programs in Charlotte, North Carolina, Winnipeg, MB, and Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. Each of these programs is enormously successful in helping people to regain life purpose, learn skills, abandon the drug culture, and become productive in society.
Based on his research and discussions with great people, he then formed the 12Neighbours Program in Fredericton. This program will work with persons “on the street” based on five principles:
The complex will have a building that will house common facilities such as laundry, recreation, counselling, access to skills assessment and training and ever so much more.
This project is exciting to me because it is a real and dynamic illustration of what has been so wrong with our health and social systems for generations. Volumes have been written about the silos in health, long term care, social services in which persons providing service in the same sector often are not aware of the various options available for complementary service. Long term care is one such vivid illustration in which over 500 elders occupy hospital beds awaiting placement in long term care where there are, in fact, over 900 vacant beds. We have known that for years! But the Titanic still heads to the iceberg!
New Brunswick has long needed innovators such as Marcel LeBrun and Stan Cassidy before him. In the 1960s, had this busy electrician not gotten a vision for rehabilitation services, the Stan Cassidy Centre never would have happened. And it is now world class! Right here in Fredericton.
Similarly, with the sad issue of the homeless population and challenges of the tent communities: Marcel LeBrun has the vision, the ability to attract good people, and 12Neighbours will be a model for the province or the country. And it could be a model for effective change in health and social service.
Ken McGeorge,BS,DHA,CHE is a retired CEO in major teaching hospitals and long-term-care facilities. He was co-chair of the New Brunswick Council on Aging and is a columnist with Brunswick News and author of Health Care Reform in New Brunswick. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ken McGeorge, BS,DHA,CHE is a career health care executive based in Fredericton, NB, Canada.