Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Novel Idea: Give the Homeless Homes

Well, it looks like a truly novel idea's hit the halls of power in Ottawa. A large part of the solution to the problem of homelessness involves homes. Imagine that!

The At Home/Chez Soi pilot project is now half way through its five-year life span, backed by $110 million of federal money channelled through the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

It's the most comprehensive research experiment with homelessness in Canada, if not the world, researchers say.

And it's working.

"We now have enough experience to know this can be done," says Paula Goering, lead researcher for the project.

The pilot project has its origins in the political dust-up of 2006. With Paul Martin's minority Liberal government on life support, NDP leader Jack Layton demanded billions in federal funding for housing and homelessness. The bargain eventually broke down, but left behind a mounting public concern that homelessness had been ignored for too long.

"Somebody needed to do something," recalls Michael Kirby, now the chair of the Mental Health Commission and a former Liberal senator.

The Conservative government agreed to set up a program through the newly-minted Mental Health Commission, pushed by then-health minister Tony Clement and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. As is Harper's style, it was to be finely-targeted, one-time funding.

But top government officials, in touch with Goering and other researchers on the front lines, argued that homelessness was a growing scourge in every major city. And they saw a new approach in the parts of the United States that seemed to be producing results: dramatic reductions in homelessness, all while saving money on social services, and law enforcement.

The approach, known as "housing first", rejects the traditional method of trying to fix homeless people's underlying problems before guiding them towards affordable housing. Instead, the home comes first — heavily subsidized and with no strings attached. Then, a support team swoops in and bombards the homeless people with services of all kinds, if they want them.

The government was not about to embrace an experimental approach to the homeless wholesale. Instead, taking their cue from Harper, officials decided to zero in on a sub-group: the mentally ill.

Then they narrowed their focus further. In five cities across the country, they targeted a particularly vulnerable sector of the mentally ill homeless population. In Vancouver, it was substance abusers. In Winnipeg, urban aboriginals. In Toronto, visible minorities. In Moncton, migrants from rural areas. And in Montreal, access to social housing was emphasized.

Khusrow Mahvan was one of those selected and he can hardly believe his luck. The 54-year-old from Iran had been living on the street or in shelters since his business had gone bankrupt in 1997.

Hypersensitive, he purposely isolated himself, cowering in the corners and shying away from the frequent conflict, the noise and the chaos that dominates shelter life.

"I was always thinking I was going to die," he says.

Now, he has a spotless one-bedroom apartment overlooking Lake Ontario in Toronto. He talks at length of the spices and flavours he adds to his food, thoroughly treasuring the ability to cook for himself for the first time in years.

"Until two weeks ago….I couldn't open my eyes," he says, covering his face with his hands.

Still unaccustomed to living in a home, he sleeps on the floor in the living room, and uses the bed and bedroom for storage of his life's belongings, stuffed into countless garbage bags.

"I like the wideness of this place," he says.

In his lucid moments, he talks of developing enough independence to set up a fast-food stand on the street below, hoping to rebuild some savings.


A common criticism of the housing-first approach to homelessness is that it can't work in a tight housing market, where landlords can afford to be picky about their tenants.

Core to the idea is to give homeless people a choice in their home, so they can have some control over living conditions. But that's hard if there's not much rental housing available, says York University professor Stephen Gaetz, who heads the Canadian Homelessness Research Network.

"The challenge is that in a tight housing market, if there isn't an adequate supply of housing, how do you get people in?"

But the At Home clients come with ample support and funding attached, as well as a plan to prevent eviction. Often, they're less trouble than regular tenants, says Paula McDougall, the office manager at a building in a gritty part of north Toronto.

"At any time, 70 to 80 per cent of the clients are doing really well," says Aseefa Sarang, executive director of Across Boundaries, a Toronto mental health organization that is heading up implementation of At Home in that city.


They taste success, but they don't know what will happen when the program winds down in 2013. Some of the clients will only have been housed for two years by then, and for many, that's not enough for a stable life to take hold.

The thought of pulling away support from such a large group of vulnerable people is disturbing, say facilitators.

"We'll move heaven and earth to get the funding continued," says physician-researcher Stephen Hwang of the Centre for Research on Inner-City Health at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

A nationwide program that invests big sums of up-front money in housing subsidies in the hopes of dealing with long-term issues of mental illness and homelessness will be a tough sell with the Harper government.

The prime minister consistently resists calls for new national social programs and is poised to shave funding from affordable housing over the coming years.

Proof the approach saves money will be crucial for government support.
"Either directly (or) indirectly, mental illness has a significant impact on Canadians -- in their homes, workplaces and streets. It also costs our economy billions," Flaherty told The Canadian Press.

Once it's finished, we're going to make sure that every government in the country knows we saved them a whole pile of money," he [program organizer Kirby] said. "The whole thing is unbelievably uplifting."

Read it on Global News: Global News | Ottawa quietly funding pilot project for homeless
While some credit should go to the Harper Government™ for providing some funding to start this pilot project, let's not get too congratulatory. It's utterly stupid that the Federal Government's resisting calls for new social programs, especially when there's evidence that they'll work better then the existing support systems.  Planning to slash affordable housing funding is negligent governance of the highest order. The Manitoba Government, led by "Today's" NDP, has been pretty uninspiring on the affordable housing front as well - aside from the crucial policy of regulating rent so as to check the market power landlords have from selling unique goods*. If the Feds aren't smart enough to continue funding this program, then the Province could pick up the slack for this program - which more than forgive previous inaction. 

Harper Government™ started this pilot because it realizes that this (sane) proposal could save money, the very same money wasted by escalating the War on Drugs** and implementing the Dumb on Crime bill. One step forward (potentially), two steps backwards.

Beyond the politics of it, this "housing-first" strategy for homelessness really touches on one of this blogger's pet peeves. A lot of people don't seem to realize how harmful lacking shelter can be. True, as the article mentions, it doesn't work for some homeless people who are just too resistant to the change of being housed, but for many this isn't the case. Lacking a stable "base of operations" for daily life is quite traumatic, which hinders the chance of to accomplish much or even maintain basic functionality. There's a lot of things - including getting the help one needs - that are pretty hard to do with inconsistent housing.

There's also a lot of ignorance over the issue of homelessness in Winnipeg. A few years back, I recall one woman who spoke of how people on the streets of Winnipeg "choose" to be there and how issues of homelessness in Canada were so much more different than in the US (which came as a response after I noted that 1/3 of homeless people in America have mental illnesses) because of a greater social safety net in Canada.

Greater safety net or not*** (when it comes to developed countries, comparing to the United States sets a very low bar in terms of public social support), homelessness still is a national crisis. According to the director of Siloam's Saul Sair Health Centre, 1/3 of the homeless who use the shelter are working poor. In this city 50% of homeless youth  experienced abuse before the age of eight, 25% of homeless girls have been sexually abused before age nine, half of homeless youth were at risk of suicide and 2/3 had a mental illness. This is a pretty big issue and environmental pressures certainly play a HUGE role in shaping the "choice" to live on windy, cold Winnipeg streets or hop from shelter to shelter.

This ignorance extends to even normally progressive Winnipeggers. This blogger has spoken with a women quite progressive on environmental issues who, nevertheless, disliked the homeless and had no problem with whatever practices the Downtown Biz Patrol (who really lack any binding legal authority) uses to push the homeless out of public places. Her belief was that it would be easy for the homeless to get "counseling" to deal with any mental health issues they have, because of the Klinic drop-in counseling centre in Downtown Winnipeg. There's a lot of flaws with that solution, however. 

  • From what this blogger has gathered, that Klinic centre doesn't do long-term, continuous counseling. They try to set people up with other psychologists and psychiatrists for longer-term counseling and generally only aim to resolve immediate crises. Getting a psychiatrist (which are covered by Manitoba Health, unlike psychologists*****) requires a lot of paper work, kinda hard if you don't have an address and lack a lot of key identifying documents (which most homeless Winnipeggers, I'd imagine, do).
  • It's still hard to recover, even with psychological help, while you're living on the street or hopping from shelter to shelter. The instability and uncertainty of the environment is working against recovery.  
Policymakers and even some members of the general public are oblivious to how traumatizing living without a home can be.  While there's certainly a genetic predisposition for many mental illnesses, the environment itself plays a large role in traumatizing people (something even some psychologists fail to realize).

Getting people housed must be the first step in solving the social problems of the homeless. These problems effect all of us and are economic problems, as the human capital that eludes this city and country by having an underclass that could be working struggle with a burdensome everyday life instead is disastrous. Canada needs to implement a national housing-first strategy and Manitoba needs to lead the way, for the sake of us all.


*Which really is only continuing an existing policy. It also only makes units affordable for presently housed people as opposed to actually generating more affordable housing spaces for the homeless.

The Harper Government™ has worked very hard, and failed, to kill the successful harm reduction project known as Insite and has done much to lengthen sentences for drug users with the Dumb on Crime bill.

***Canada's social spending as a percentage of GDP was 16.9% in 2007, according to the OECD. In the same year, US social spending as a percentage of GDP was 16.2%. Part of this is due to the ineffective and expensive private healthcare system America has jacking up healthcare costs - which are subsidized to certain citizens by certain US programs. Mainly, though, this figure demonstrates that Canada fits into the Anglo-American trend of weak social investment.

*****To be more specific, psychologists are only covered if their services are used while one is hospitalized. So, they aren't a realistic option for non-institutionalized homeless Winnipeggers looking to get their lives back on track.


  1. Good Blog! I was homeless and taken in by the At Home/Chez Soi project. Now I work for the host organization, the Mental Health Commission of Canada. I'll be working with the primary research arm at the Winnipeg Site, the Institute of Urban Studies, University of Winnipeg where I used to work over a decade ago until I became very ill with what was later to become diagnosed as bi-polar disorder. I wouldn't have been able to heal and become productive again without a home.

  2. Good Blog! I was homeless and taken in by the At Home/Chez Soi project. Now I work for the host organization, the Mental Health Commission of Canada. I'll be working with the primary research arm at the Winnipeg Site, the Institute of Urban Studies, University of Winnipeg where I used to work over a decade ago until I became very ill with what was later to become diagnosed as bi-polar disorder. I wouldn't have been able to heal and become productive again without a home.

    1. Interesting life events. Nice to hear someone directly working with the project with perspectives from the social support organizational side and the service user side.