Dr. Jeff Turnbull: Advocate for the Homeless

By Janet Allingham RN

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Editor's note: Since this story was written, Dr. Jeff Turnbull has stepped down as chief of staff with The Ottawa Hospital to spend more time working with people experiencing homelessness.

"Home" is an important concept for Dr. Jeff Turnbull.

As an ER physician, Dr. Turnbull found out many years ago that homelessness was impacting the delivery of health care in the Ottawa Hospital. Some people were returning repeatedly. He asked them what the problem was and they answered, "You don't understand."

Visiting the shelters was the eye-opener. Many of the issues that brought people back to the ER included abuse and addiction. Concluding that homeless people needed a voice in the health care system, he helped become that voice working with other key leaders.

The result is Inner City Health, an organization he says that is “constantly evolving... constantly reacting to a changing environment that first included alcoholic men and now includes crack, Fentanyl, and HIV/AIDS.”

Unwavering in his commitment to the plight of people experiencing homelessness, Dr. Turnbull manages to fit this advocacy into an already busy agenda. He is Chief of Staff at The Ottawa Hospital and Medical Director of Inner City Health. He also teaches medical students from the University of Ottawa. In spite of his busy schedule, housing and homelessness are a key focus because, as a physician, he needs patients in a stable environment for them to benefit most from treatment.

Dr. Turnbull would like Canadians to know that we shouldn't judge experiencing homelessness. Many have been vulnerable since early childhood through environments like residential schools or homes where addiction was normal. Even after two decades in the field, he says he's still learning. Every one of his clients has something to offer, he says, and he believes that the role of the health care system is to serve them.