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Woman opens her home to some of thousands unable to get into only detox centre in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Sitting at her kitchen table, Brenda Letourneau points to the couch that has acted as a de facto detox bed for dozens of people in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Letourneau said she opens up her own home because there is often nowhere else to go for people trying to get out of the downward spiral of substance use, and she’s watched too many die from drug-related overdoses.

“When an addict asks for help and they’re ready to get clean, they need it now. They can’t wait,” said the 45-year-old.

As someone who in the past needed detox from drugs herself, she can relate.

In Thunder Bay, though, roughly 3,000 people are turned away every year from the city’s only withdrawal management program.

That’s an average of about eight people denied access to services every day.

Others looking for help call the centre every hour until they finally get in. Or they give up.

woman opens her home to some of thousands unable to get into only detox centre in thunder bay ont
The Balmoral Centre in Thunder Bay was first commissioned in 1986 for individuals suffering from alcohol abuse. The purpose-built facility was designed to meet the community’s needs, but over time, addictions became more complicated. More people were found to be using drugs and alcohol, or a combination of substances. (Supplied)

The 25-bed Balmoral Centre simply doesn’t have enough space, according to Nancy Black, St. Joseph’s Care Group vice-president of addictions and mental health. The care group is responsible for funding and operating the centre.

“The centre operates at full capacity, 365 days a year,” Black told CBC News, which means providing services to about 3,000 individuals every year. On average, a person in need spends three days at the facility.

This past spring, a formal proposal was submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Health for a new 40-bed mental health and addictions crisis centre in Thunder Bay.

But that proposal has for months sat on the desk of Michael Tibollo, the province’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, without any response, Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro said.

Situation getting worse

Letourneau said the first time she went to detox was April 21, 2008. She was pregnant and had relapsed after trying to quit using on her own.

It took her 10 days to get in. Letourneau said the drug situation has only worsened in the last decade.

“The drugs are more toxic and lethal than I’ve ever seen,” she said.

While talking, Letourneau adds story, after story, after story of death.

People she knew who had relapsed and died of an overdose waiting for a detox bed. The children and the parents left behind.

At least 40 people she knew personally have died in the last two years, Letourneau said. A total of 99 people in Thunder Bay died of drug-related overdoses in 2020 alone.

It’s why she keeps opening her door.

“We’ll stay with them and watch them while they keep calling for that bed to open up, until they can get in. But certainly I’m not equipped to help them,” she said, adding she and her partner have often driven people to the Balmoral Centre once they do get accepted.

The process of detoxing is different depending on the individual and the substance or substances used, but it’s an important part of recovery from use and dependency.

The detox process, which involves clearing the body of a substance or substances, can come with serious withdrawal symptoms. But a detox centre has medically trained staff to help people endure that period.

Letourneau said she doesn’t have any of that training or medication, like intravenous fluids, to help people through detox. She said all she can do is provide a safe space, a warm meal, and observation in case medical intervention is required.

Letourneau estimates 20 people have detoxed on her couch in the last year. She said she’s not the only person in the city who opens their homes to help people cleanse their bodies from drugs and get back on their feet.

She’s calling for all levels of government and service providers to step up and do more.

“Honestly, nothing changes enough. Like, little slight changes, but not enough to actually make a change,” Letourneau added.

Still no answer on crisis centre proposal

“Our needs are great here,” said Mauro. “We also don’t have the ability just to take a drive to somewhere that’s close to us [to access resources].”

Rather, it’s Thunder Bay that acts as a hub to provide mental health care for people across northwestern Ontario, he said.

Mauro said he’s met with Tibollo about the issue three times, so the need has been “very clearly articulated to the minister, and hopefully we get a positive response” to the proposal that St. Joseph’s Care Group submitted on behalf of a network of agencies in the northwest.

The proposal includes a 40-bed crisis-care centre (which would make a total of 65 beds in the city) as well as expanded mobile crisis response and a number of new “safe” beds that provide a safe space, with 24-hour staffing for people in crisis who don’t require acute care, in the region, said Black.

Without those services, Black said, people will continue to detox alone, at a home of family or friends, or will continue to go to emergency departments when in crisis or for treatment.

woman opens her home to some of thousands unable to get into only detox centre in thunder bay ont 1
Nancy Black, vice-president of addictions and mental health at St. Joseph’s Care Group in Thunder Bay, says the Balmoral Centre operates at full capacity, 365 days a year. (Supplied)

CBC News asked the Ministry of Health what has happened with the crisis-care centre proposal and if they understood the need for mental health and addictions resources in northwestern Ontario.

The ministry did not respond by deadline.

In a previous statement to CBC News, a ministry spokesperson said the government is investing $3.8 billion over 10 years to improve the province’s mental health and addictions system.

Black said she hopes Thunder Bay and the northwest sees some of that money.

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