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Northern Health has big role to play in what happens downtown

While much of the recent debate over downtown has been driven by the business community and focused on city council, Northern Health is the agency that can, and does, do the most to deal with the ongoing social issues.

It had been relatively quiet about the issue … until Monday.

“Our dream is to have a safe and clean downtown,” Shane de Meyer, Northern Health’s director of specialized services, told a crowd of about 150 people at City Hall Monday.

He told the meeting, assembled specifically to deal with the ongoing issues plaguing downtown, such as homelessness, drug addiction, mental health issues, and the crime that goes with all of it.

The first thing that is needed, said de Meyer, is housing.

“Nobody gets well without stable housing,” he said. “The second thing that is needed is collaborative governance, which is a fancy way of saying everybody needs to work together.”

He said there are many good service agencies in Prince George that are working downtown. Northern Health, he added, has developed partnerships with the RCMP, the city, health agencies such as the First Nations Health Authority, social service and non-profits agencies, and local businesses.

“One of the things that is also quite evident is the need to integrate harm reduction services into other services,” he said. “I think one isolated harm reduction service doesn’t do it. It’s been tried, it’s not successful.”

He added Northern Health, in partnership with First Nations, is looking cultural safety of services.

“Cultural safety is important,” he said.

de Meyer introduced Graham Hall, who oversees Northern Health’s services downtown.

“We’re also looking at how do we keep people stable in their homes, providing in-home intensive mental health support,” de Meyer. “Prince George is a community, it’s not just downtown. The tip of the iceberg is what we see downtown. What we’ve been trying to do, and I think we’ve been doing successfully, is provide in-home service throughout the community.”

That includes nursing, life skills workers, mental health clinicians providing services in residents’ homes.

He said Northern Health supports harm reduction and wellness through the Community Action Team, which is a peer-driven group involving many of the agencies operating in the city.

“They are aiming to provide support to people who are consumers so they can get healthy,” he said. “… There’s a recognition that (users) are members of the community.”

Northern Health also operates the detox unit in the Nechako Centre behind the University Hospital of Northern B.C.

“One of our challenges is that we are also a regional resource,” he said. “It’s a question of how to allocate the beds. In Prince George we could fill 20 beds, but we also need to provide support to outlying areas that have very little in terms of services. That’s a challenge.”

The Nechako Centre also operates an opioid therapy clinic.

“In very general terms, it’s how you get people off street drugs so they can get healthy,” he said.

Northern Health has also been trying to enhance its primary care services downtown by working with the Northern Interior Health Society and the Blue Pine Clinic.

“They provide medical services to people who have a very difficult time accessing family physicians,” he said.

And, of course, Northern Health operates the harm reduction site and is a partner with the Foundry.

At UHNBC, there are 30 beds for mental health care and they are usually over-capacity by a half a dozen people.

Northern Health also provides outreach services to rural areas around Prince George.

Northern Health has also started working with Downtown Prince George which provides feedback “that maybe we don’t see as a service provider.”

He added that Northern Health has been talking with several agencies in the community about the possibility of establishing a sobering centre.

“There was an inquest recently and one of the recommendations was a sobering centre,” he said. “It’s one of the things we’re looking at as a partnership. Is Northern Health the best agency to run a sobering centre. No. But Northern Health has certain abilities, medical abilities (that can be used at a sobering centre).”

He also talked about the facility proposed for the NR Motors site on First Avenue as another piece of the puzzle in solving downtown issues.

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