‘We reach them where they are:’ Mobile healing team delivers culturally based care

Jane Harrison is one of the unsung heroes of the pandemic who, along with her team, is bringing care to vulnerable, underserved communities in the Greater Toronto Area. Harrison and Anishnawbe Health Toronto established a mobile healing team to bring resources to those in need.

Q: Why was it necessary to create a mobile healing team?

A: We (Indigenous peoples) are over-represented in the homeless population; 16 per cent of people on the streets are Indigenous. And a larger number are underhoused or transient. We needed to reach people where they are because they are the people who are most vulnerable and underserved.

With our mobile team, we’re able to go out to where our Indigenous people are. We deliver culturally based care so that our people are getting care and cultural support. We go to the encampments, food banks and all the non-profit Indigenous housing where we can reach everybody. Because whether we’re in a pandemic or not, (there are) barriers to reaching us at Anishnawbe Health Toronto; a lot of it is a lack of the ability to travel. So, we shifted the model and we said, well we’ll reach them where they are.

Q: How does this initiative meet the needs of urban Indigenous communities?

A: We provide post-testing supports for our Indigenous vulnerable populations and other vulnerable populations, flu vaccines, COVID-19 testing and primary care. Right now, we’re really focused on (COVID-19 testing) because of the waves and the number of people we need to reach out to very quickly.

Many clients can’t book an appointment to get COVID-19 testing. So, we do the testing and we’re in a special stream where we receive our results really quickly, within 24 hours. The reason is that if we need to find someone and they’re positive, we need to move quickly because they are transient and not in stable environments and we need to find environments for them, which we do. We have a relationship with Inner City Health Associates (who run the COVID-19 recovery hotels). So, we find them, attach them to the supportive hotels and then we also do follow-up for our clients who are Indigenous and require other services as well.

We’re also doing vaccines. We did our first round in January with our seniors at Wigwamen Terrace and we’re going back next Tuesday to do our second. It was amazing teamwork. It was incredible. It was like being part of a symphony.

Q: What was the process like to get the team up and running?

A: We’re Anishnawbe Health; we’ve been working in a collective environment for thousands of years, so it wasn’t a new experience. It was just about getting out there. We’ve had an amazing response from the encampments and from everyone that we’ve touched. I’m honoured to be out there and working with this team.

I started with one nurse practitioner, social worker and administration assistant driver. And now we have two groups doing this work. We have another nurse practitioner, administrators and registered nurses. We are growing rapidly. It’s really fun. Everyone works really well together, and we all have the same passion which is to care for our vulnerable Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations, to reach them where they are, to break the barriers to access COVID-19 testing and also to build relationships with them and break their isolation.

Q: What is your role with the mobile team?

A: A day for me and my team is very busy. We have a team meeting every morning. Sometimes I go out with the team but not always. My role is to coordinate and manage the mobile healing team – nurse practitioners, social workers, registered nurses, Indigenous helpers and administrative assistant drivers. I’m locating our stops, networking with community organizations to find our vulnerable populations and better serve them.

I respond to the positive COVID-19 tests. I have a protocol and cultural model for responding to people who are positive, to assess them, but also to guide that first discussion to say “Hey, you know you tested positive on Friday.” You know it’s challenging for people. I have a master’s in community nursing and in social work and am registered as a psychotherapist so I use a lot of my skills and knowledge of the social work framework and my Indigenous understanding to help people walk this journey because it can be really, really tense.

I do a lot of education because a lot of people cannot go on websites for information or they find the sites overwhelming. I also work with all of the family. I get the whole family on the call and we chat about their questions and concerns. I make sure they have the correct information because there is so much information out there that is not correct. I do back-tracking – “Where were you 48 hours before you started your symptoms?” and forward contract tracing. We do what we can to reduce the spread of infection.

Q: How do you create culturally safe protocols?

A: We are Indigenous, so I think it’s a given. I struggle with that safety thing. I think it might be better to talk about sharing space, respecting Indigenous space.

Q: What drives you to do this work?

A: Being out in our community where people are vulnerable and need us, that drives me. That pumps me up. I get energized. I learn so much from my Anishnawbe family and people. I’m really happy and honoured to give back to our community. Going into the encampments and giving back to them and letting people know that they matter. It’s the best way.

Q: How are you coping on the frontlines of the pandemic?

A: We laugh a lot. There is a lot of humour. We do a lot of supporting each other. And we talk a lot. We talk if something comes up. We don’t name it as debriefing but we’re constantly debriefing each other. We are all together. Everyone helps out with administration. Everybody can shift to help each other and that is a strength where there are no strict roles, there is no hierarchy.

Q: What do you want people to know about the work you do?

A: We are out there as a mobile team to meet people when they need it and where they need it. We want people to be aware that they need to open their eyes and see the other world, see people who are living in precarious environments. As one of our clients said to me, because we always say “Aanii, hello, how are you doing?” And she said, “You know, I wish people would say that to me when they pass me on the street. Because what they do is, they always put their eyes down and look away.”

This whole pandemic is not good, I wouldn’t wish it upon any of us, but it has brought people closer together in terms of acknowledging relationships.


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1 Comment
  • Elliette Portal-Stanley says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful article on a very important issue. We all need to know more and do more for indigenous and marginalized people.


Celina Carter


Celina Carter is a freelance writer, registered nurse, and PhD candidate at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.

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