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Halifax's other health care infrastructure crisis 

The North End Community Health Centre is in desperate need of a new roof.

click to enlarge Whether they stay or go, the NECHC's home at 2165 Gottingen Street needs some work. - THE COAST
  • Whether they stay or go, the NECHC's home at 2165 Gottingen Street needs some work.
  • The Coast

Rod Wilson calls the building “our Sea King.”

The executive director of the North End Community Health Centre says the centre’s home on Gottingen Street is still flying—like the malfunctioning Canadian helicopters—but at the end of its days. It’s only a matter of time before there’s a crash.

Two years ago a major roof leak prompted the NECHC to conduct a structural assessment. The prognosis wasn’t good. The roof of 2165 Gottingen is leaking, rotten and not long for this world.

If the roof above the centre does cave and the building can’t be used, it will potentially wipe out the wide array of free health care and social programs NECHC offers to over 2,500 monthly patients. The centre is currently putting together a funding proposal for the Nova Scotia Health Authority to avoid that outcome. That’s if the money can arrive in time.

“Where we're at, we're at the point where we have no money,” Wilson says. “If the roof goes, we could have to shut down tomorrow.”

The roof is the kind of tar and gravel system that people stopped installing 35 years ago, says John MacIntyre of Five Star Roofing. He was assessing the centre’s structural condition on Tuesday after another leak sprung this past weekend.

“If it were my building, I’d be looking at getting it done next week,” MacIntyre says. “It’s in that dire of straits.”

Completely replacing the four-decade-old structure could take anywhere between $45,000 and $90,000. That’s a problem for a registered charity that relies on government funding for 94 percent of its revenue. The centre hasn’t seen an increase in provincial funding for the last several years.

According to its tax returns, the NECHC receives about $2.7 million a year in government funds, with 80 percent of that spent on its health programs and the remaining 20 percent on administration. The centre’s largely relied on outside donations for infrastructure work. The most recent was a $26,000 donation from the 100 Men Who Give a Damn organization in 2014. That money was spent revamping the centre’s waiting room, which had leaking windows, peeling paint and poor lighting.

click to enlarge Dr. Rod Wilson has worked at the North End Community Health Centre for the last 18 years. - THE COAST
  • Dr. Rod Wilson has worked at the North End Community Health Centre for the last 18 years.
  • The Coast

“It was a hole,” says Wilson. “It was really quite disgusting, and we wanted our patients to not feel like this is the best you deserve."

The North End Community Health Centre first opened in 1971. It was formed by north end locals after the Africville eviction brought an influx of new, low-income residents to the Gottingen area. Along with its primary site, the NECHC also runs two leased storefronts down the road at the Johanna B. Oosterveld Centre (named for a former executive director). All told, it employs six part-time physicians and a staff of nearly 50 nurses, nurse practitioners, nutritionists and social workers.

Besides general health clinic services, the centre also provides pre-natal programs, a free dental clinic, public drop-in space, nutrition classes, a mobile outreach street team, mental health services and addiction help to some of the city’s most overlooked residents. Those 2,500 monthly patients include new immigrants, homeless and transient populations, those in shelters and correctional inmates at the nearby Carlton Annex. The ones “nobody else wants to see,” says Wilson.

“If we blow a roof or have a major disaster, where are those people going to go?”

Where they’ll go is an already-strained emergency health system. Through its programs, the NECHC helps keep patients healthy, preventing more complicated problems and diverting people away from overstuffed emergency rooms.

“The work they’re doing is really taking pressures off of our ERs, pressure to the admittance of our hospitals,” says Nova Scotia Health and Wellness minister Leo Glavine.

The minister has visited the NECHC many times, and is a fan of the centre’s “exceptional” work. So much so that he’s hoping its “wraparound service” can serve as a model for standards of care in other Nova Scotian communities.

“I don’t need a list of metrics in front of me to analyze how impactful—over a good number of years—the north end health clinic has been to change the population’s health of those who go there for their healthcare.”

Glavine says he’s aware of 2169 Gottingen’s condition and will be giving “every consideration” to the funding proposal NECHC puts forward, “to ensure the great work they do continues.”

The potential $90,000 the centre needs is just for its roof, though. Wilson estimates it will cost $500,000 over the next two years to upgrade everything else in the building retrofitted building that needs fixing. In comparison, the province has only earmarked $1.5 million this year to improve “third-world” conditions at the Victoria General hospital.

Then there are the leases at the Oosterveld Centre down the road, which are up in August. Rent’s not getting any cheaper on Gottingen Street. Ideally, the centre would combine all its services under one modernized roof. That’s not the most likely outcome, especially now that St. Pat's-Alexandra is off the table. As it has for many years, the NECHC will likely have to make do with whatever it can get.

 Wilson admits the centre hasn’t always put together the best business case for more funding, but he and the board are trying to change that. They have to. With their backs against the crumbling wall, the NECHC’s board will be hoping for a miracle come budget time this spring.

That’s assuming the roof holds. If it doesn’t, $90,000 could end up being a drop in the bucket to the increased longterm costs to the health care system.

“You pay us now, or you pay us later,” Wilson says. “If we don't get help, you're going to have a crisis. Then we have no control.”


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