B.C. cancer patient’s case exposes gaps in care for homeless people: advocates

Terry Willis says he’s praying for a clean, safe place to live to undergo the cancer treatments he needs after he was denied chemotherapy because he lives in a Victoria homeless shelter.

Terry Willis, who is homeless and battling cancer, is shown in Victoria, Monday, Sept.24, 2018. (Hilary Marks/Contributed)

Terry Willis, who is homeless and battling cancer, is shown in Victoria, Monday, Sept.24, 2018. (Hilary Marks/Contributed)

The plight of a homeless man who says he was told he couldn’t get cancer treatment while living in temporary housing in Victoria highlights the difficulties of finding a suitable home to recover for those who have been on the streets, health and housing advocates say.

Terry Willis says he can’t fight non-Hodgkin lymphoma while living in the Johnson Street Community building for homeless people. The 50-year-old said he is facing his second fight against blood cancer in seven years, but was told his oncologist won’t start chemotherapy treatments because the building is not a suitable recovery environment.

“I hope and pray that I do get a clean place to live and the doctor will initiate the chemotherapy,” said Willis. “I’m not ready to give up.”

Willis said he was dismayed when he first heard the decision.

“I thought about it and I agreed, he’s right,” he said. “My immune system will be literally shut down. I can’t fight off anything and you know, they say you can’t drink the water in there. You can’t even have a clean shower.”

Island Health said it cannot comment on individual cases because of privacy concerns, but in a statement the health authority said “we can confirm a multi-agency team has determined that 844 Johnson in Victoria has appropriate measures in place to support clients who require chemotherapy.”

The B.C. Cancer Agency said it also backs the position that the Johnson Street Community building is suitable for chemotherapy patients. B.C.’s Housing Ministry said in a statement it is working with ”Island Health to explore all supportive housing options that would be suitable.”

It wasn’t immediately clear on Tuesday whether the positions of the health authority and the cancer agency mean Willis will get chemotherapy.

Related: Cancer returns to young B.C. girl with a vengeance

Related: World-class PET/CT scanner coming to Kelowna

The Johnson Street Community building was purchased in 2016 by the British Columbia government to provide housing for homeless people who erected a tent city on the front lawn of Victoria’s court building. The former care home provides accommodation for 147 residents. Its supports for residents include four mental health workers, an on-site manager, two home support workers and a health clinic. Meals are provided twice daily and the building has an overdose prevention site.

Grey Showler, health director at Victoria’s Cool Aid Society, said Willis’s health situation reveals gaps in services available to vulnerable people who require places to live that will allow them to recover from serious health issues. Cool Aid is trying to find funding to convert two former family apartments into recovery homes for people getting over illnesses, he said.

“If you are couch surfing or live in a place that maybe the home-care nurses can’t get to, or if you are living in your vehicle or you’re in the shelter, it’s difficult,” said Showler. “People when they go to the hospital and they are unwell, not everybody walks out of the hospital 100 per cent.”

Prof. Kelli Stajduhar, who specializes in end-of-life care for vulnerable people at the University of Victoria’s school of nursing, said Willis’s case shows the need for broader care options.

“The story of Terry Willis is the story we have heard over and over again,” she said. “There needs to be more help.”

Stajduhar said she was recently part of a three-year research project that followed the health issues of 25 homeless and vulnerable people in Victoria facing health struggles at the end of their lives.

The Portland Hotel Society, which operates the housing facility where Willis lives, said in a statement it is working with Willis and his doctors to facilitate his treatment.

“We appreciate the need for designated facilities that can best support expansive service delivery and medical oversight for rigorous treatments, such as chemotherapy,” it said.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cumulative cases by local health area from January to October.
Bylaws ready to enforce mandatory masking

Compliance has been high in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows say officials

The 1st Haney Scout group has set up their annual Christmas tree lot at Trek Bicycle, 21626 Lougheed Highway, Maple Ridge. (1st Haney Scouts/Special to The News)
Christmas trees selling to support Maple Ridge scouts

The 1st Haney Scout Group’s annual Christmas tree lot opens Nov. 28

Soleil Brooks is proudly wearing a University of Victoria sweatshirt around the halls of Maple Ridge Secondary School this week after accepting a scholarship offer to play rugby on the island. (Ronan O’Doherty - The News)
Maple Ridge rugby star earns coveted scholarship to UVic

Soleil Brooks captained Team BC to the U16 Western Canadian championship in 2019

Re-elected Maple Ridge MLAs Lisa Beare and Bob D’Eith were sworn into government virtually on Tuesday, Nov. 24.	(The News/files)
Maple Ridge MLAs virtually sworn into B.C. legislature

MLAs Lisa Beare and Bob D’Eith were sworn in along with 55 other members of the BC NDP

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest day of pandemic with 13 deaths, 738 new COVID-19 cases

Number of people in hospital is nearing 300, while total cases near 30,000

(File photo)
Alberta woman charged after allegedly hitting boy with watermelon at Okanagan campsite

Police say a disagreement among friends at an Adams Lake campsite turned ugly

Court of Appeal for British Columbia in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. woman loses appeal to have second child by using late husband’s sperm

Assisted Human Reproduction Act prohibits the removal of human reproductive material from a donor without consent

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

B.C. projects targeting the restoration of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser and Columbia Watersheds will share in $10.9 million of federal funding to protect species at risk. (Kenny Regan photo)
13 projects protecting B.C. aquatic species at risk receive $11 million in federal funding

Salmon and marine mammals expected to benefit from ecosystem-based approach

File photo
Surrey RCMP investigating death threat against Surrey councillor

‘On Monday morning I received a threat on messenger that basically said to put a bullet in me,’ Councillor Jack Hundial told the Now-Leader

Krista Macinnis displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
B.C. mom angry that students asked to list positive stories about residential schools

Daughter’s Grade 6 class asked to write down 5 positive stories or facts

Barrels pictured outside Oliver winery, Quinta Ferreira, in May. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
B.C. Master of Wine reflects on industry’s teetering economic state

Pandemic, for some wine makers, has been a blessing in disguise. For others, not so much.

Most Read