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Mar12ThuBelleville nurse serves the marginalized in back alleys and tent cities. March 12, 2020 by Giselle Randall
Stethoscope. Blood pressure cuff. Bandages and antibiotic ointment. Blood sugar monitor and orange juice. Naloxone opioid overdose kit. Sharps container. Bible.
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This is what Debbie DeVries carries on her rounds as a registered nurse—but she doesn’t work at a hospital. Instead, her rounds take her to the back streets, alleys and tent cities of Belleville, Ont. As a Salvation Army street nurse, she reaches out to the marginalized with care and compassion.
“My role is to be a health presence in the community, to provide nursing care for those often overlooked by society,” says DeVries. “As a Christian, I believe God values every human being. We’re all created in his image. And as a nurse, I’m called to treat everybody with dignity and respect.”
DeVries is following in the footsteps of Doug Roy, who introduced the street nurse program to Belleville, supported by the Women’s Christian Association. When Roy passed away in 2018, the organization gave The Salvation Army three years of funding to continue the program.
“It fits with our mission to meet human needs,” says Connie Goodsell, director of community and family services (CFS) in Belleville. “A lot of our clients don’t trust the mainstream health-care system, and won’t seek the help they need. This gives us the opportunity to go out and meet them where they are, to build relationships, so we can help them—no matter what their circumstances.”
Under a Bridge
On Tuesdays, DeVries spends time with people at the Army’s community lunch, and then heads out into the neighbourhood. Today, she walks down to the Moira River, which runs beside the historic downtown district along Front Street.
“It’s a stark contrast—a beautiful river with a walking path, and then all of a sudden you see somebody who’s homeless, or their belongings,” says DeVries. According to a local advocacy group, about 90 people live in tent cities around Belleville and another 15 live on the streets. DeVries is keeping an eye out for a few people. Although it’s an unseasonably warm day in October, she’s thinking ahead to winter.
“I’m quite concerned, because the weather is going to get cold soon, and the shelter’s not open yet,” she says. Planning for Belleville’s first emergency shelter began in 2015, but progress has been slow.
“Last winter, before I had officially started as a street nurse, I helped a man who came into family services with frozen feet,” she recalls. “He was in a lot of pain. He’d been to the emergency room once, but the second time they weren’t as accommodating. I can’t help but wonder—if he had been a successful businessman, would he have been sent away? I doubt it.”
Before turning onto Front Street, DeVries approaches a woman wrapped in blankets under a bridge, calling her name gently to make sure she’s OK. “Someone’s left you food,” she says.
“I don’t want it! Go away!” the woman yells.
DeVries sees between 10-15 people a day—sometimes just to check in. While she looks for people experiencing homelessness, there are many others who have a place to live, but are still marginalized.
“A lot of our clients live along here—see all the upstairs apartments?” she points out. “Rent prices are going up. Sometimes people can pay their rent, but have nothing left. So they come to The Salvation Army’s food bank and for community meals.”
Her next stop is Market Square behind city hall, where a volunteer group serves free meals in the evenings, but nobody is there at the moment. A woman who often panhandles nearby is also not at her usual spot.
DeVries continues on to the Freedom Peer Support Centre, a government-funded drop-in program for people struggling with addiction and mental health, and chats with a volunteer. The conversation soon turns to the shelter.
“It’s been in the works for years,” the volunteer says. “What’s taking so long?”
“Political red tape,” DeVries replies.
“We really need it, but its only going to have 21 beds. It still won’t be enough.”
In the Alley
In the alley behind the Freedom centre, DeVries comes across “Justin,” and tells him she’s a street nurse with The Salvation Army. She asks where he’s staying, and he explains that he and his wife have tents at a campsite.
“The weather’s decent now,” he says. “I’m surviving the best I can.”
“Are you eating?” DeVries asks.
“We eat one way or another. I make sure we do,” he replies. “I just drank a fourlitre bag of chocolate milk, so I’m full.”
He tells DeVries he’s an opioid user. “I was doing good, but I’ve relapsed pretty badly. I’m using pretty much every day now.”
“I hope it’s not fentanyl, because that’ll do you in,” DeVries says. “If you’re getting stuff on the street—and you probably know this better than I do—you don’t always know the strength, you don’t know how clean it is. Have you considered going on methadone?”
“I’ve tried,” he says.
DeVries examines an abscess on his leg. “It’s not bleeding or infected. I’m not concerned about that right now,” she says. “I’m more concerned about what caused it.”
“Now that the kids are gone, my life’s gone downhill,” Justin says. “And I’m up on these charges. I’ve been to jail once—I don’t want to go back. I’m terrified. I’ve stood on the Bay Bridge, thinking of jumping. Sorry for rambling on.”
“That’s OK. It helps me understand your situation better,” says DeVries.
"I have the time to listen to people’s stories ... I have the ability to treat the whole person."
“It’s nice to know people do care,” Justin says as he leaves.
As a street nurse, DeVries rarely gets a patient’s history—often it’s just a first name and the presenting issue. Wounds, foot care and nutrition are all challenges for this population. “Justin, for example— he’s basically eating whatever he can get his hands on,” she says.
But the main issues she sees are addiction and mental-health concerns, or a combination of the two.
“In hospital nursing, you have so many patients and only so much time— and you can only address physical, not spiritual needs,” she says. “One of the things that really excites me about this role is that I have the time to listen to people’s stories. And if spiritual questions come up, I have the freedom to talk about faith—I have the ability to treat the whole person.”
On a Bench
DeVries crosses Pinnacle Street near The Salvation Army’s CFS and thrift store, walking through a parking lot to reach Church Street, where construction is in progress on the shelter. She stops to talk to a construction worker, who gives her a look inside. He has serious reservations about the project.
“What will it mean for the neighbourhood?” he asks. “There will be people loitering, needles on the ground, vandalism. What about safety?”
DeVries briefly shares her perspective, encouraging him to see past his preconceptions to the people who need help.
After a quick check at Pathways to Independence, a community agency for people with developmental disabilities and complex needs, she carries on to the public library, another gathering place. “Evan” is having a smoke on a bench in the courtyard. He’s just moved back to Belleville but doesn’t yet have a place to live. DeVries lets him know she’s available.
A nurse for 30 years, DeVries has always been interested in gaps in the health-care system. A few years ago, while living in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., she volunteered at The Salvation Army’s CFS. “I heard it again and again—‘I don’t trust the health-care system anymore,’ ” she says. “There’s a lot of social stigma.” With the support of Major Shellie Kirschman, then community ministries director, she started a free health clinic.
“I’d ask people, ‘Why do you come to me? You know I’m a nurse,’ ” she says. “And they’d say, ‘It’s different. This is a safe place.’ I sense that here, too.”
As DeVries reaches out to the vulnerable and marginalized, she draws on her own experience. “I’ve been there,” she says. “I’m a single mom with four kids. I’ve stood in a food line. I’ve waited for a Christmas hamper. I’ve felt the shame when someone you know walks in.
“What I’ve lived through has given me empathy. And that helps just as much as my nursing training.”
DeVries started attending The Salvation Army when she needed to leave an unsafe situation. “It was the first church I attended where I didn’t feel like I had to explain what I was dealing with,” she says. “People just seemed to get it. It’s where I first understood the motto, ‘Heart to God and Hand to Man.’ ”
In April 2018, she became a senior soldier at Belleville Citadel, where she plays in the band, leads a prayer meeting and Bible study, and helps with the youth group.
After the library, DeVries returns to family services. Her friend, Barry, who has an acquired brain injury, comes to the Army to socialize.
“First I met Debbie was at the Salvation Army church,” he says. “She’s helping me pretty good. Whenever I need to talk to her about something, she’s always there. Gives me good advice. She’s been helping my friend, too.”
DeVries smiles. “A listening ear and emotional support is important with so many of the people I see,” she says. “I care about these people.”
The Grace Inn Shelter officially opened its doors in December 2019.