"We became a community and I think that was our major goal."
Dual public health emergencies created by a toxic drug supply and COVID-19 have been devastating to people with complex health needs. Fortunately, Fraser Health staff working at a repurposed hockey rink in Surrey have made it their mission to give them the best in care.
Manpreet Chahal (pictured above) and Tina MacDonald, registered psychiatric nurses, were essential in establishing the Emergency Response Centre (ERC) which opened inside the vacant rink last April to protect the health and safety of Surrey’s unhoused population during the pandemic.
There, Chahal and MacDonald worked with other nurses, social and outreach support workers and shelter staff to support clients with housing, mental health, substance use and other urgent needs.
"I don't think anybody knew what to expect,” said MacDonald, who was the site clinical lead. “It really helped that all of us wanted to be here. We all volunteered our time to be here at this site.”
MacDonald said she wasn't surprised that a second cycle of COVID-19 came but was a bit overwhelmed by how much it affected the community supported by the Emergency Response Centre.
Staff and clients held regular house meetings to discuss people’s care needs and how they felt about the situation. They also took time to connect with each other.
"One of my most special moments was when we had a talent show here and someone played the guitar -- Michael Buble's song -- Home," MacDonald said.
There were tragic days, too. They lost clients to drugs and together they grieved. But together they stayed strong, MacDonald said.
"We became a community and I think that was our major goal,” she said.
The many unknowns of COVID-19 meant the Emergency Response Centre staff had to be nimble to meet the complex needs of clients, said Chahal, who was the site clinical co-lead.
Pictured: Tina MacDonald
With the second cycle of COVID-19 in the fall, demand for the Emergency Response Centre surged. People were incredibly grateful to be brought into the shelter, Chahal said.
"A lot of clients have overdosed, and we helped to bring them back,” she said. “Some of those clients later followed up with us to voice their appreciation for what we provided in terms of care here."
Chahal said she learned during the pandemic that it was critical to have the right people caring for the people who came to the Emergency Response Centre.
"They wanted to be here, they came with great experience and enthusiasm to work with this population," she said. "That made all the difference."
For their “caring, compassion and creativity” to support people at the Emergency Response Centre, Sherif Amara (Mental Health and Substance Use clinical operations manager at Fraser Health), MacDonald and Chahal were recognized as the Surrey Homelessness & Housing Society 2020 Community Leaders.