The North End Community Health Centre is seeing more of a need for foot care services among people in Halifax’s homeless community. Exposure to moisture and the challenge of getting clean dry socks are contributing factors.
‘When we get socks, we are … happier than when we get cash’
Gareth Hampshire · CBC News
With more people living in tents and cars, walking a lot to get around and often navigating damp conditions, those who are among Halifax’s most vulnerable also face additional health issues that include foot problems.
As the numbers of those living in encampments has grown, the North End Community Health Centre is seeing a greater need for foot care.
“We can’t dry our socks,” said Roy Bussey, who first spoke with CBC after his tent was damaged by post-tropical storm Lee in September. “We can’t dry our feet properly because there is moisture in the tents.”
He has been living outside for several months and has suffered a number of painful foot conditions in that time.
“I had trench foot three times already,” said Bussey, who is 31. “The cuts on the feet are so painful.”
Cracks in the skin are one symptom of trench foot, which is a condition that affected soldiers in the First World War and can happen in feet exposed to moisture, sometimes leading to infections.
‘Socks can actually solve so many problems’
Kirsten Hansen, a licensed practical nurse who treats people at the foot care clinic held weekly at the North End Community Health Centre, has been seeing a range of issues.
“We’re getting more instances of athlete’s foot, fungal nails and trench foot — I had one of those two weeks ago,” she said, adding people who are homeless and sometimes unable to change their socks are at a higher risk of all of those issues.
“When we are keeping our socks on for long periods of time, that causes moisture problems and it kind of spirals from there,” Hansen said.
Keeping feet clean and dry is vital, she said, in addition to wearing clean socks.
“Socks can actually solve so many problems,” said Hansen, who is an advanced diabetic foot care nurse and also a foot care educator.
With the foot care clinic often fully booked, Emma Greer is now seeing additional patients at the community centre to try to help more people.
She is a registered nurse who is trained in foot care, but says those showing up with foot issues often have other serious health troubles, too.
“Having a chronic ailment is a common theme amongst the unhoused population because they are so vulnerable,” Greer said.
An example could be someone with diabetes who may be losing the sensation in their feet, meaning they might not feel even a minor stub of the toe.
If they do not have spare socks to change into they may not notice the impact of that stub until much more serious issues develop, such as infections.
Both Greer and Hansen hand out new socks to their patients, as do nurses with a mobile outreach street team when they treat people from their van.
Additional donations would help. Local agencies and charities are also accepting donations of men’s, women’s and children’s socks.
“Socks are so important for the health of our guests and our residents, and it’s one of the things that we don’t get enough of,” said Michelle Porter, the CEO of Souls Harbour Rescue Mission.
The organization serves meals to more than 200 people a day. And nearly half of those need clothes each day, Porter said.
“As we head into the colder weather, the need for socks is going to be even more critical.”
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Bussey’s socks are currently in a bag in his car in order to keep them dry.
He has also benefited from donated socks. He says they will help get the roughly 1,000 homeless people in Halifax through the winter.
“To somebody on the street that is just a big gift. When we get socks, we are … happier than when we get cash,” Bussey said.
Souls Harbour accepts donations of socks at its location on Cunard Street as well as its Mission Mart stores.
The North End Community Health Centre is also accepting donations on the fifth floor of its Gottingen Street location, Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and noon and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gareth Hampshire began his career with CBC News in 1998. He has worked as a reporter in Edmonton and is now based in Halifax.