Last November, a woman passed away in Fredericton’s north side tent encampment after being refused a medically necessary surgery because she experienced homelessness and did not have a safe place to recover following her discharge from the hospital (“Questions mount over how homeless Fredericton woman died while living in a tent,” CBC News, January 8, 2022). Public officials have since called for an inquest into her death.
As social work faculty and graduate-level students struck by this tragedy, we support calls for an investigation. We believe the issue reflects a lack of access to safe, affordable housing and human dignity. Based on what we ‘know’ from the reporting into this incident, this person did not have an appropriate place to mend, so they were denied treatment.
This loss reflects the broader issue of New Brunswick’s affordable housing crisis.
The death of a vulnerable citizen strongly contrasts with the government’s commitment to ensure that any patient in the public health care system is treated with fairness, respect, and dignity. This seems to be a failure within the provincial healthcare system on a moral and ethical level. Unfortunately, discharge from hospitals of medically fragile people experiencing homelessness to emergency shelters and even back to the street are routinely documented across Canada.
Communication and meaningful collaboration between health care providers need to be improved in the aftermath of this needless death to prevent this from happening again.
In New Brunswick, social workers are unfortunately under-utilized and rarely involved in hospital discharge planning activities. In other provinces, social workers bring attention to the role of home stability, access to housing and availability of support systems (including family, informal and formal service providers in the community) necessary to medical recovery.
By drawing on person-centred, person-in-environment, and social determinants of health frameworks to combat homelessness and food insecurity, New Brunswick social workers can proactively ensure safe and effective discharge pathways for those who experience homelessness in our city.
A possible solution to ensure people who are sleeping rough can access necessary medical surgeries might be providing subsidized hotel accommodations with home care services delivered to that site. This option would give people a safe and more dignified place to heal and could perhaps open the door for further social work involvement to help identify stable housing alternatives. In our opinion, tragedies like this are precisely why we need social workers involved in health care and discharge planning in New Brunswick hospitals.
The homelessness crisis among medically fragile citizens shows us complex issues at play. This New Brunswick woman’s death was not just about access to shelter but rather about resources in general and how to help those who might feel unsafe or unwelcome in shelters. The experience of homelessness is also a gendered and racialized issue, impacting people of intersecting marginalized social identities.
Housing is a human right because it is the basis of stability and security for an individual or family. It is an issue that can be spoken of across the country and within the Atlantic provinces specifically. We need to all be concerned with ensuring people have access to essential treatments, regardless of their social location. As a society, we need to push for better.
We are seeking a call to action to work collaboratively to hold New Brunswick and the federal government accountable for the drawn-out plans to develop more housing options. We think Housing First Strategies, which the federal government supports, are an excellent route to prevent and reduce homelessness in Canada. But these efforts need to happen more quickly, especially during the pandemic.
Professor Charles Furlotte, MSW, RSW, is Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at St. Thomas University. Kaitlin Brogan, Ashley Weagle, Hilary Newman Loveless, and Luke Garagan are MSW candidates who participated in Furlotte’s Social Work and Health Care Practice course.