'Stop the feeder process': Renowned doctor advocating for homeless speaks in Edmonton

“Invest heavily in early childhood development, education, poverty reduction — we need to stop the feeder process.”

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When he started providing medical help in the street community, Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull never imagined he’d just sit with them to get accepted as “Dr. T.”

“I was going to treat tuberculosis and feel good about myself,” he recalled.

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Since then, Turnbull’s groundbreaking work addressing the health-care needs of the vulnerable population of Ottawa gained national attention.

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He will be at MacEwan University on Nov. 8 as part of the Chancellor Speaker Series.

As the chief of staff at a hospital with a budget approaching a billion dollars, Turnbull could drive to a place in the nation’s capital that had the health indexes of the most dire Third World country — and he was the only physician.

Treating people in an unstable environment was a long and complicated process, without an “easy button.”

“You have to look at the whole person all the time — you have to think about not just treating mental health, or addiction, or physical illness. It’s all of those, but you also have to think about where they’re living, what social services they have, who are their family and friends, and putting them into a community of help and support,” Turnbull said.

“I surrounded them with support, such as social services, mental-health support, addiction support — that new sense that life could be a lot better. People started to get better,” he said.

The individual who walks around shouting at the sky likely has untreated illness. Maybe schizophrenia.

“The temptation is to cross to the other side of the street, if you see someone ranting and raving,” Turnbull said.

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“But if we saw someone with untreated illness in any other setting, we’d say, ‘Where’s our health-care system?’ For some reason, when someone’s mentally ill and out of control, we don’t want anything to do with them,” he said.

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“We’ve got to bring him in — he’s seeing things and talking to himself. Think about the other homeless people who have to share a 70-bed room with him at the shelter. We can walk on the other side of the street. They can’t,” Turnbull said.

Between ineffective health care, mental-health care, sheltering, policing, court costs, and incarceration, society is actually already shelling out a pile, throwing money at something needing a different approach, Turnbull said.

Can we afford to keep the status quo?

Can we really afford to keep doing that without changing the course for those individuals?

Turnbull wonders.

Intervening in a difficult adolescence would help.

“There are people who are getting close to that edge, and going fast: they’re well on the way to addiction and homelessness. They left home young, they left school, they’re couch surfing with friends downtown,” he said.

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Gravity pulls them towards shelter life, drugs, sex trade, to resorting to violence to get by.

Early identification can lead instead to restorative programs, getting them back into school.

“Invest heavily in early childhood development, education, poverty reduction — we need to stop the feeder process,” he said.

Ultimately, there’s hope.

“Among all the sadness, desperation, violence and trauma, there’s light, there’s camaraderie, friendship and love. There’s all those things. It’s an engaging place to work — although sometimes it’s exceptionally disappointing,” he said.

Integrated solutions are complicated, hard work, and take time, he said.

“But it’s worth it.”

And when that work seems hard, Turnbull recalls the work of the ER physician in an era of opioid crisis.

“Calling someone and saying ‘I’ve just pronounced your son dead.’ I can’t do that any more,” he said.

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