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Study shows Cambridge homeless population has more acquired brain injuries than average

'The statistics in Cambridge were quite remarkable' says Traverse Independence, which will initiate services here to help people get treatment
2022 0305 Traverse Independence BG 4
The sculpture of the "Homeless Jesus" by Timothy Schmalz at St. Clement's Catholic Church in Cambridge.

A recent study by a local health organization has determined the vast majority of the city's homeless population have an acquired brain injury.

Last week, Traverse Independence, an organization dedicated to assisting people with acquired brain injuries (ABI) in Waterloo Region, brought its ABI in the Streets program to 150 Main Street in Galt.

Their goal was to screen as many homeless people as possible for brain injuries.

“The statistics in Cambridge were quite remarkable," said Toby Harris, chief executive officer, at Traverse Independence. 

"Acquired brain injury among the homeless population in the city is high. We ended up screening 93 people in two days.”

“The result was 73.1 per cent, or 68 of the 93 screened, had a brain injury. This is not surprising but higher than we anticipated. The average number is usually about 60 per cent.”

“There’s lots of reporting about homeless people with mental health and addictions. We’ve believed for many years, that it is really about mental health, addictions, as well as brain injury in the vast majority of the population,” Harris said.

“We have an outreach worker who has been working in Cambridge in our ABI in the Streets program.”

The program offers a non-traditional brain injury intake and assessment which starts with building a trusted relationship between outreach worker and client.

The team includes ABI specialists in psychiatry, occupational therapy, behaviour therapy and social work.

Traverse staff work in the shelter systems, encampments, and safe consumption sites. Staff have unique skills sets as specialized brain injury workers who can support, advise, and educate clients and other workers on brain injury and offer that day-to-day support.

In Cambridge, the goal is to meet clients wherever they are and complete a simple ABI HELPS screening tool.

“It’s a simple screener with about five or six questions, used to determine a possible brain injury,” Harris said.

“The screening blitz was completed in partnership with the Cambridge Shelter Corporation, and the Ontario Health Team. It is a community effort,” Harris said.

Sharon Livingstone, board chair at the Cambridge Shelter Corporation, said that whether homeless people are aware that this is an issue for them, is another piece of the puzzle.

“But we have known for some time that brain injury an issue in our homeless population,” Livingstone said.

Livingstone said that she is pleased Traverse Independence is doing something about it.

“We need to shed light on this. It can happen to anyone. Anything brain related just means that day to day living will have challenges whether it’s holding a job, or how to take medication,” she said.  

Harris said that the ABI in the Streets program enables workers to walk alongside other workers who work with homeless populations.

“These results tell us that we need more support and workers,” Harris said.

“From here, we can start to look at hiring more staff and at how we can make connections with those who are homeless.”

Harris said that ending up on the streets can happen due to a variety of factors.

“Sometimes it starts with mental health or addiction. Sometimes it’s a combination, and sometimes it is brain injury that leads to a path of addiction and mental health,” Harris said.

Brain Injury Canada reports that approximately 50 per cent of people experiencing homelessness have had a brain injury. This is a large percentage of the population who often don’t get the support or resources they need for treatment and recovery.

Livingstone said for those with brain injury, a lack of affordable housing continues to be a barrier.

“The challenge is that for those who have not been diagnosed for years, they need supportive housing and we do not have enough, hardly any in Cambridge,” Livingstone said.  

"This is the issue for people to be able to live and age successfully. They need wrap around supports and right now, we don’t have them. Plans should have been made 10 years ago for our aging population who might have a multiple issues whether mental or physical. ABI is just one of those issues that has not been talked about, has been undiagnosed, and undealt with."

Harris said the goal moving going forward, is to provide wrap around services to those who are homeless for mental heath, addiction, and brain injury.

The next step is to meet with other providers and outreach teams in the Cambridge area.

“We are pretty established downtown. So, now it’s about trying to embed our services into existing mental health and addictions programs,” Harris said.

ABI in the Streets is based on building relationships and then gradually bringing them to brain injury services.

“For those 98 people last week, it will be a slow and gradual process to get to know them better and then gradually get some formal help for their brain injuries,” Harris said.  

“I feel very hopeful. Our staff are so excited about ABI in the Streets program and the organizations we are working with as they welcome us to march alongside them.”

For more information about Traverse Independence, visit here.

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Barbara Latkowski

About the Author: Barbara Latkowski

Barbara graduated with a Masters degree in Journalism from Western University and has covered politics, arts and entertainment, health, education, sports, courts, social justice, and issues that matter to the community
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