From Dawn to Dawn

Local Care-A-Van provides healthcare on the move to those most in need.

It’s a blustery Friday in September and the weekly lunchtime soup kitchen at St. George’s United Church in downtown Courtenay is just getting started.  The church is busy—people coming, people going, and people hanging out, alone or in clusters, on the steps and the grassy lawn.

These are the community’s down and out.  The challenges they face are complex, as are the challenges they present to our society, which often can’t figure out what to do with such people.  A warm meal, served up by friendly volunteers in a warm place, helps.

The scene is just like any soup kitchen in any small BC city.  But at noon something quite unique happens—a sleek motor home, impeccably painted in earth tones with two stylish wavy stripes, pulls up outside the church and opens its doors.  A couple of minutes later one of the women standing on the lawn walks over to the van, pokes her head in, and asks, “Can you help me?”

The answer is definitely yes.

This is the Care-a-Van, a mobile medical clinic that travels around Courtenay, literally taking healthcare to the streets.  It is the only one of its kind west of Calgary.

Each week it has regular shifts at St. George’s, the Maple Pool Campground, the Washington Inn, and the shacks on Headquarters Road.

In its customized, precisely-ordered interior, the Care-a-Van contains all the equipment a regular doctor’s office would have.  It’s staffed by a volunteer driver and two volunteer medical professionals, usually one doctor and one nurse.

These staff provide not just medical care (including dental and eye care) but also warm clothes, referrals to helping agencies, links to housing, and a sympathetic ear.  As Care-a-Van volunteers, they understand the complex realities of their clients’ lives.  While changing a dressing or administering medication, they may be dispensing information or advice that gets that client set up with housing, a disability pension, education, or employment, setting them on a path to a more stable, independent life.

The Care-a-Van costs only about $25,000 a year to run, and it saves the healthcare system hundreds of thousands of dollars by providing frontline care to the vulnerable, thus keeping them out of the emergency ward, which is where they otherwise tend to end up.

The Care-a-Van is the most visible manifestation of Dawn to Dawn, a Comox Valley non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating homelessness in the Comox Valley.  Less visible, but equally important to this goal, is Dawn to Dawn’s residential program.  This provides homes for 17 people, all formerly homeless, along with independence planning support and programs to increase life skills, health and employability.

Doctor Simon Colgan and the mobile Care-A-Van tend to patients who often fall through the cracks in the healthcare system.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Dawn to Dawn owes its success to quite a number of dedicated people.  One of the foremost of these is board member Tom Grant.  This former business owner and current Comox Councilor was one of the driving forces behind the organization’s start-up.

“In 2006, I served as the president of Comox Rotary Club,” Grant recalls.  “Every year we’d raise tens of thousands of dollars and we’d give it away based on requests that came in.  I wanted to be more proactive for my year.  So we struck a committee to find out what the most pressing need was.  Those committee members went out and did their research and came back and said it was drug addiction and homelessness.

“So, in our naivety, we set aside $15,000 and said let’s do something about homelessness.  Along the way, I got given the name of [Comox Valley nurse] Helen Boyd and was told that she knew a lot about homelessness,” says Grant.  Once Boyd and Grant connected, things really got moving.

“We got together for a cup of coffee on a hot Friday in April,” Grant says with a smile.  By the end of that first meeting, they’d decided on their first step—to hold a public meeting about homelessness.

“We really didn’t know what to expect.  We had no preconceived notion about whether we’d have five or 20 people.  In fact, 70 people came—it was incredible.  The result was a decision to start a non-profit organization dedicated to solving homelessness.”

The name Dawn to Dawn came from a homeless person who joined the board, and it expresses the intention of providing protection 24 hours a day.

Now with a name, a general mandate, and a team of leaders, Dawn to Dawn had to figure out just what to do.  There followed about a year of what Grant modestly calls “stumbling along,” but which in all likelihood was a time of intense learning, as D2D’s board looked for an answer to the vexing question, “How do you stop homelessness?”

Today, Grant has a quick and short response to that question: “The answer is Kindergarten-simple—you house people.”

D2D has done just that.  “We found out that the Ministry of Housing and Social Development would give people $375 a month for housing.  We thought, ‘why don’t we rent some two-bedroom apartments and sublet each bedroom to a homeless person?’”

They soon found sympathetic landlords, who value having D2D as a reliable, long-term tenant they can rely on.  Within months, D2D had seven two-bedroom apartments.  D2D paid the rent and utilities, furnished the apartments (all through donations), found the tenants, helped them move in, and helped them find medical care, employment counseling, life skills training and other types of support.

The apartments have housed 50 people since the first one opened in July 2008.  One part-time coordinator, currently funded by the Vancouver Foundation, works with volunteers and keeps the program functioning effectively.

Ideally, this housing marks a turning point for people, providing a springboard which helps them leave homelessness definitively behind.

“We like to graduate people out of the program,” says Grant.  “For instance, this one guy—once we got him into stable housing, he started writing resumes.  It’s pretty hard to look for a job when you don’t have an address or phone, hard to manage an interview when you don’t have a place to shower, change, or store your stuff.  So after about two weeks this guy got a job.  That was 2008 and he still has that job.  Once he was ready, he told us he wanted to get his own apartment.  Our last bit of help was to give him some furniture and help him move.”

For many clients, the situation is made more challenging by mental health and addiction issues.  In these cases, the stability provided by the housing, coupled with the support D2D offers, helps them get these issues under control, whether that means getting back on their meds, recovering their physical health, attending counseling, or learning about detox programs.

In many cases, homelessness is as much a health issue as it is a housing issue, says Grant.  It was that realization that led to the launch of D2D’s Care-A-Van.

“Helen had the idea of converting an old van.  We wondered how much this would cost.  The first guy we talked to was Barry Willis at Sunwest RV.  If you’ve ever met Helen—well….” he says with a chuckle, remembering her effect on Willis.  “She’s very passionate, and she explained her vision to Barry.  Well, she and Barry hit it off and he said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’”

As it turned out, he could do a lot, explains Grant.

“Three months later, he phoned us up and said he had a motorhome that meets our requirements.  Not only that, his crew volunteered their time on weekends and evenings, and remodeled it according to our specifications—well, according to Helen’s,” says Grant, smiling.

The Care-a-Van hit the streets in spring 2009 and very soon had a steady flow of clients.

The Van’s clients tend to be the people who fall through the cracks in our healthcare system, notes Grant.  “Many of these are what are called medical orphans—they don’t have a family doctor.  Many doctor’s practices are full and the last thing they want to take on is a big problem,” he says.  “And most homeless people are unlikely to go to a clinic or doctor’s office because it’s just not part of their world.  They often feel shame, especially if they are drug addicts, and don’t want to expose themselves to judgment or interference from authorities.

“Many of our clients are people who have no connection to the system at all, and don’t want to.  A lot of them have mental health problems and are scared of everything and everyone.

“As a result, for most of these people the first contact with the medical system is typically the emergency room, and that’s the most costly way to deal with them,” adds Grant.  “They end up in acute care beds, which cost about $2,200 a night.  We are saving the healthcare system hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”

Furthermore, the Van provides a complexity of care that most doctors in clinics couldn’t begin to match.  Not only does the staff provide information and referrals, they develop relationships with their clients and potential clients.  Sometimes these relationships are the most valuable part of what happens in the Van.

Grant illustrates this point with the story of a homeless man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

“He wouldn’t talk to anyone.  He wouldn’t come near us.  Helen started leaving him boiled eggs.  She started to gain his trust.  Eventually she convinced him to come into the Care-a-Van and she took his blood pressure, which was way too high.  And his diet was terrible.  She got a mental health and addiction worker to come out of his office and meet the guy.  Then she took the guy into their office and introduced him around.  He started to feel comfortable.

“Once that happened, they got him back on his meds and helped him get a disability pension, and now he’s housed.  Recently, he asked Helen for a crock-pot and he’s making his own meals.  His nutrition is better; his blood pressure is down.”

It’s these kinds of stories that keep Grant, and other D2D volunteers, motivated to be part of a project that sometimes rubs their noses in human misery.

The biggest challenge facing Dawn to Dawn is finding a stable source of funding.  Grant points out that other similar organizations, such as Our Place in Victoria, receive government funding.  He is frustrated to see the City of Courtenay moving forward with plans to build an emergency homeless shelter, because based on his experience this is not the best use of public funds.

“Emergency shelters don’t solve the problem.  All over North America, they are being closed down in favor of providing more long-term housing.  The idea of building an emergency homeless shelter with a million dollars a year in operating costs—that’s lunacy.  If you gave a million dollars to Dawn to Dawn, there’d be no more homelessness in the Comox Valley.”

He shakes his head ruefully and then changes the subject.  Dawn to Dawn achieves plenty even with its limited budget, and that is what he most wants to talk about.

“Let me tell you about our latest scheme: we put out a press release about a month ago saying we are looking for used RVs.  We’ll give people a tax receipt for their donation.  Rotary has offered to clean them up for us, and then we can give them out.  We’ve got five so far,” he says.

Another new project is a homeless soccer league, which started up in July, and plans are underway for a winter bowling league.  These provide an opportunity to get moving, socialize, build self esteem, and focus on something beyond survival.  It’s also an outreach opportunity for D2D: someone might come to soccer and learn about the Care-a-Van, then they might be placed in housing, and from there, they just might find their way to independence— thus helping Dawn to Dawn fulfill its goal of eradicating homelessness in the Comox Valley.

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2 Responses to From Dawn to Dawn

  1. Gosh, I had only a very vague idea of what Dawn2Dawn was about. Very impressive. Just the right sort of hands on, practical and practicable help that’s required. A very good destination for charity dollars in future.

  2. What a great enlightening article to explain the grass roots approach by Dawn to Dawn. I have heard of the organization through our local newspapers but had no idea of the apartments , care-a-van, etc. that is making such a positive difference for our homeless neighbours. Keep up the good work.