• Insufficient availability of services is the most important barrier in the service trajectory of people experiencing homelessness and substance use.
• Stakeholders agree that the emergency response is relevant in some contexts: danger to the person’s life or to others, acute health problems, and for detecting homelessness and associated problems.
• Stigmatization by emergency response providers continues to be an issue across all emergency response services.
• The lack of continuity complicates emergency response professionals’ referrals even more than issues of collaboration.
Background This paper presents an assessment of the current emergency response to homeless people who use substances in Montreal, a major North American city. This project addresses the rising concern about homelessness in high-income countries. Several studies have shown that homeless people frequently use emergency services (i.e., police, paramedical, and hospital), especially in the context of substance use. Yet, the key actors’ perspectives are poorly documented.
Method Our team conducted a needs analysis using a deliberative democratic evaluation. Data collection strategies included an intersectoral World Café (n = 34, including police, specialized professionals, community stakeholders, political representatives, researchers, and people who have been homeless) and individual interviews with health professionals (n = 5) and homeless people (n = 8). We performed a thematic content analysis based on a conceptual framework of access to health care and of collaboration.
Findings This study provided key information on the role of emergency services and the needs of key actors, in terms of the dimensions of access to health care (approachability, acceptability, availability, and appropriateness) and continuity. Our main results show that, according to the participants, the emergency response is relevant when homeless people are a danger to themselves or to others, and during episodes of acute physical and psychological care. However, emergency service providers still stigmatize homelessness and substance use, which negatively affects intervention quality. Finally, our main results highlight the interdependence between the emergency services and health, social, and community services.
Conclusion The emergency response is necessary and appropriate in some situations. It remains important to intervene upstream and to improve the attitudes and practices of emergency service providers. Finally, it is necessary to adapt services to the needs of homeless substance users and improve service continuity, for example, by adopting a population-based approach.