Integrated Care Hub, Part One – Dedicated volunteers: ‘We love the people here’

The Integrated Care Hub at 661 Montreal Street in Kingston. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Editor’s note: In Part One of this two-part article, we meet two dedicated retirees who volunteer their time at Kingston’s Integrated Care Hub (ICH). In Part Two, we spend the afternoon at the ICH with the people who provide services and the people who access them.

The Integrated Care Hub (ICH) at 661 Montreal Street in Kingston and the encampment that has built up around it in adjacent Belle Park may seem worlds away to many people in the Kingston area — but for some, it is right in their backyard, and for about 150 more, it is home.

On May 15, 2024, when ICH volunteers Pamela Gray and Brigit Smith “sit down” for an interview, “The Hub,” as it is colloquially referred to, is just that: like the central part of a wheel from which the spokes radiate, this unassuming brown building is the centre of many lives and rotates with hope, compassion, and — unfortunately — controversy.

Today, the parking area is crowded. About 50 people chat in small groups, seated on the pavement and benches, while others sleep in the sunshine with their backs against the fence or scroll through phones. Just on the other side of the fence, there are some tents. Other camping equipment and what appears to be trash are strewn about. Finding the interviewees — the volunteers — also proves challenging; neither woman is standing by the ramp where they had said they would meet for the interview.

After an inquiry, Smith is located in a portable building on site. She is apologetic but excited to relate that she is helping to sort a new donation made by Mark’s (Work Wearhouse).

Smith says that her friend Pam Gray “is just dealing with something down in the woods — she’ll be back in a few minutes, but we’ll just tidy up quickly.” Then she goes back to working with some people whom she identifies as clients.

Boxes upon boxes of coats and other warm clothing, brand new with tags still on, make it difficult to move through the space she and the two others are working in. As Smith organizes the helpers around her and begins to pass off her duties to them, a young woman comes in and enthusiastically digs around in the boxes, eventually holding up a stylish red winter jacket with an amazed look on her face.  

She doesn’t mind chatting but asks to remain anonymous, and says she is a client of the ICH.

“We don’t deserve this quality, but we are very grateful… like, I have never been so grateful. All I hear is complaints all day, but if we could just contact the fucking Mark’s, [I would tell them], this should go to the staff. The staff is deserving of this,” she states. It is not a sad comment, but rather buoyant and good-humoured. She shares a few laughs with the others and is on her way.

Smith takes time to sit, eventually.

She says the donation came from Mark’s location at the RioCan Centre in Kingston, and she praises that store and Phase 2 downtown for their kindness and generosity since she and Gray began volunteering at the ICH last fall: “They’ve been very good to us.”

Volunteers and clients work side by side to organize donations to the ICH. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

The story of this place is really about people. Smith wants the public to know that the clients there are strong people whose lives could easily have broken.

“Of course, they’re really struggling now with all the pressure of the evictions, and very stressed. But — and I think I can speak for Pam too — we love the people here… You listen to their stories, and it’s heartbreaking, right? I don’t know how they have the strength even sometimes to get up in the morning and come in here and smile and be so kind to us. They so appreciate everything, and… yeah, they break my heart,” she says.

What brought Smith to the ICH eight months ago? The two friends and their husbands were enjoying a visit on Smith’s back deck on nearby Rideau Street; then, she says, “I was on Facebook, and I noticed [a post by] a friend of mine who works here… She said that the Hub [needed] a golf cart so they could get into the woods quickly and help people.”

The door bursts open as if to underscore the point, and Pamela Gray appears, apologetic for being late, having just returned from helping someone in the woods herself. 

Like her friend, Gray exudes a certain positive energy that is hard to describe without sounding cliched: kindness and likability. She is clearly passionate about what the ICH does.

They dive back into the conversation with laughs, and it is easy to see why so many people are comfortable around them. The golf cart, it turns out, was something they could get through a connection of Gray’s, Smith explains, finishing, “We got some money, got them a golf cart.”

Simple as that.

Smith is a retired Children’s Aid worker, and Gray is a retired consultant. They came with their golf cart donation, had “a sit down” with the workers there, “and realized ‘Oh! We could do more for them,’” shares Smith. The two collected furniture donations and arranged a little recreation room in the building for the staff, “where they can have a break and chill.” It seems that many little touches have been paid for out of their own pockets, but this information is shared with a laugh as if the two friends had simply gone overboard on a shopping spree.

Over the months, they organized donations the staff had collected, but they did not have time to sort and store. And they even secured their own storage warehouse through another connection.

“We did this great project… We made a list of everything we thought people needed: coats and boots, hats, mitts, pants, hoodies, sweaters… laid it all out and we did up 80-something bags,” Smith explains. “Then we ended up doing more after that. So we had everybody coated here…. That was our beginning, and then we realized, ‘Oh, dear. The needs are more than this…”

And so began the storage room in the onsite portable, where items are organized like a tuck shop, by type and size.

Then the conversation turns back to the people who use the ICH.

Gray says, “Right now, we’ve got over 100 people here. In the building, there are 25 sleeping upstairs, 20 downstairs, about 20 out by the fire, and probably about 80 or so now in the encampment.”

During a City press conference on April 3, 2024 about the attempted enforcement of the daytime camping prohibition, Paige Agnew, the City’s Commissioner of Growth and Development Services, told the press there were 27 or 28 people living in the encampment. When questioned, she said there were “a number of individuals that were on site yesterday that are not residents… but our data is logged. And it’s looked at on a day-to-day basis. We have information related to every individual that’s there: what services, what their needs are, what their long-term goals are, all of those pieces. That’s the best I can speak to that.”

Gray says that in her own dealings with the City, “I was very adamant that these right numbers were going to be discussed. There’s a lot of manipulation, from my perspective, about what the City doesn’t want the community to know.”

Pamela Gray (left) and Brigit Smith spoke candidly about the challenges the ICH faces and their ideas on how to help. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

She surmises that it’s because the City doesn’t have the services to support the people who need help: “Let’s go big picture. We’ve got 1,400 encampments in Ontario, and this is a very big problem. The opiate crisis, fentanyl, the benzodiazepines or horse tranquilizers — people are just dying on the spot now. We’re not addicted to heroin anymore; we’re dead from fentanyl. So It’s growing, and it’s not going away.”

She goes on to say, “I believe the City was hoping everybody would just leave. But these are our citizens, and we have to take care of them.”

Gray is candid about whether she expects that people would be more supportive of the idea of the ICH if they saw more transparency from the City and could see the City fighting for the people there.

Gray explained that she and Smith reached out to local doctors about the health implications of the City’s daytime sheltering prohibition — the “daytime camping ban” or “daytime evictions,” as the by-law enforcement is more commonly referred to colloquially. Gray and Smith, with the help of the local physicians, penned a letter about those implications and, “Brigit did that,” Gray says of her volunteer partner’s efforts to have nine local doctors sign the letter.

That letter was sent out to various political leaders and service providers locally in early April 2024. Kingstonist inquired with the signatory doctors at the time, requesting permission to publish the letter, but was asked not to name the doctors without permission. Kingstonist was then unable to obtain permission from each of the doctors, so publishing the letter without naming the doctors wasn’t viable at the time. However, Kingstonist was sent a copy of the letter for verification purposes, which is shown below with the names of the doctors cropped out.

A cropped copy of the letter signed by nine Kingston-based doctors regarding the “daily eviction of homes.” Submitted document.

The letter, indeed signed by nine local doctors, read:

To whom it may concern:

As physicians caring for patients at KHSC who are afflicted by addiction and substance use disorders, we feel compelled to voice our concerns about the plans to carry out daily evictions of people camped around “the Hub,” at the intersection of Rideau and Montreal Streets.

Many of the people who will be affected are known to us as inpatients at KHSC, and from ambulatory clinics and outreach we have performed at the Hub. We can assure you that they are almost universally suffering from severe substance use disorders, often combined with other mental health and physical challenges, and that forcing them to take down their shelter during the day only to have to reconstruct it at night will add considerable suffering and hardship to their lives. They are already among the most disadvantaged and marginalized members of our community — in some cases, our neighbours, friends, and loved ones — and we work daily to afford them the benefits of modern medical treatments that have been proven to lessen the dangers of severe addiction, even in the context of poverty and deprivation.

The last thing any of us in Kingston needs or should want is to add to the suffering of some of our sickest and most impoverished fellow citizens. We fear that all this action will do is push poverty, homelessness, and mental illness out of sight. This action won’t solve underlying issues but will likely worsen mental health problems and expose individuals to more environmental risks by removing their shelter. It will also distance them from critical services and disrupt community bonds. Encampments often serve as makeshift communities, providing safety and support. Forcibly uprooting individuals can induce anxiety, depression, and other traumas, potentially worsening substance use disorders.

As much as we are dedicated to our work, the negative effects on the encampment residents and all users of our healthcare system due to the inevitable increase in patient load at KHSC resulting from this inhumane and ill-conceived action will not be welcomed.

That letter was sent to Ted Hsu, Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for Kingston and the Islands, along with a request for his office to review the decision of the City of Kingston “through the lens of the Ontario Human Rights code.” This prompted Hsu to “ask the Ontario Legislature Library for help,” the MPP said in a letter he sent publicly to Mayor Bryan Paterson, which refers to the Superior Court of Ontario’s decision in late 2023 regarding the removal of the encampment at Belle Park, City of Kingston v Doe.

Gray also mentioned the letter that Hsu had attached to his letter to Paterson (as referred to in the letter above), which saw the Ontario Legislature disagree with the City’s decision to enforce the prohibition, and the City’s view that the enforcement of the prohibition is in keeping with Justice Ian Carter’s Superior Court ruling (City of Kingston v Doe). That letter was not made public at the time Hsu address Paterson. However, in response to inquiries, Hsu’s office provided that letter to Kingstonist. The full letter from the Ontario Legislature Library can be read below.

For Gray and Smith, the above letters prove their point. And it’s upsetting to them, despite aligning with their views.

“We’re not pleased with our City,” declares Smith. “We’re not pleased with our City at all… To ask these people to evict themselves every day from this place: it’s appalling, it’s inhumane, it’s inappropriate. They have disabilities… [The City] want[s] no part of that, and I’m just very discouraged by that.”

Smith adds, “I don’t know why they think it’s gonna be a solution. It is not a solution. If they think that closing this down is going to be thing to do… Where are people going to go? It doesn’t make any sense.”

The pair continue, one picking up where the other leaves off.

“And the City and some councillors believe these people are all from everywhere else, and they’ll go home. Well, this is their home,” Gray says.

“It’s a community,” Smith confirms.

Gray and Smith say they have plans to make sure the greater Kingston community is getting a bigger, clearer picture of the ICH.

“Brigit and I and some of the people here are going to be doing some work with the community, to talk to them about [our strategy]. We are working on a proposal for the City. We’re not just saying ‘This is a problem,’” Gray says, noting that instead they are actively working on solutions.

“We have a strategy. We’re working with the private sector. Tomorrow I am meeting with the federal government; we’ve been up at the provincial government. They’re sending people to us to work on our proposal for the City,” Gray continues.

“So we have some solutions that we think are very workable, and our next step is to get to the community and say, ‘We’re not there yet, but this is what we’re working on, and we know what you’re dealing with is complicated, and we want to let you know that we’re trying to make this better.’”

Gray points out that she’d been late to the interview because she was out dealing with something that a neighbour of the ICH “wasn’t happy with — and it was pretty easy to solve.”

“Sometimes it’s not,” she admits. “Sometimes, it’s much more complicated.”

“The thing is,” Smith chimes in, “things aren’t going to be solved if you don’t have the wraparound services right on site. [Otherwise] you’re going to get issues, you’re going to get problems, because people have nobody to talk to, and the services just aren’t there.”

“We have one shower for 100 people. They will say there are two, but one never works. We have one washing machine. It’s complicated.”

Smith says the people of the ICH need so much more than just a tent or a bed. “They need counselling, nutrition, life skills, assistance, you know?” 

“And help them transition! See what their goals are, see what their needs are, see where they’d like to see themselves. Ask them what they want for their life.”

The encampment that surrounds the ICH, Gray says, is a product of a lack of services: “The encampment is not meant to be here. So those 80 or so people we have out there, they have no services other than food, and they can get a shower, too. But there’s no services.”

She points out that many people in the encampment are without proper paperwork: “They have no driver’s licence or birth certificate, and they need help to get that all straightened around.”

They also need help to access proper help navigating the available services, the women note.

Smith agrees that the encampment is almost like a refugee camp set up after a disaster or a war, when people are displaced and need help from the Red Cross to get back in touch with their lives. 

“And to do that, you need services. If you ask the Red Cross [in the case of disaster relief], what do they do? Well, they can give us a big, long list of all the things. But in our case, we are not [doing that]. The City — and I think the Human Rights Commission made it pretty clear — they’re not interested in working with these people. They say they have care plans for these people. That’s nonsense.” 

The ICH is operated by Trellis HIV and Community Care (formerly HARS) and Addiction and Mental Health Services of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (AMHS-KFLA), with harm reduction and Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS) offered by Kingston Community Health Centres. The ICH provides three main services: consumption and treatment services, drop-in services, and a rest zone.

Just for the sake of clarity, Smith explains the various services that are offered at ICH, which exclude the people camping in Belle Park: “The 25 people that sleep upstairs in the pods, they have the CTS service [consumption treatment services] that they can access, and they have addictions and mental health services that they access to sleep, and food is involved in that in the drop-in centre. And then they have 20 people sleeping on the floor down in the basement, and then we have about 20 out by the fire.”

ICH is responsible, she says, for anyone by the fire and anyone in the building

The encampment happens to be near ICH because of what is available there: food and drug poisoning treatment.

“Yeah, we can save them,” Smith attests, explaining that nurses and others on site are trained to assist when a drug poisoning happens. “The team here is unbelievable. Everybody’s trained. Everybody’s exceptional.”

Gray’s phone rings. Someone else needs help in the woods.

Outside, a young man is just passing, and they introduce him. At their exuberant bidding, he is assigned the role of press tour guide, and they depart.

In Part Two of this article, we get a look inside the ICH and at part of the encampment, and a glimpse into the life of one client for whom the ICH has made all the difference in the world. Kingstonist will include a link to Part Two here when it is published.

With files from Tori Stafford.

One thought on “Integrated Care Hub, Part One – Dedicated volunteers: ‘We love the people here’

  • This is quality ‘reporting’ . Where, what, when and how. No hankies, tears, or admonishments. I’m looking forward to part two.

    With facts at hand one can look for more if interested.

    Good work

Leave a Reply

You cannot copy content from this page, please share the link instead!