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Program rescuing dozens from streets

Innovative approach improves the lives of formerly homeless Winnipeggers

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/12/2011 (2697 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The number is impressive. More than 170 homeless people have bid goodbye to life on the street in Winnipeg over the past two years and now have a place to call their own.

For years, they slept under bridges or crashed nightly in shelters. Most suffered from addictions or mental health problems. Many had become estranged from their families. Some had not known a regular home, with a key and a comfortable bed, for more than a decade.

But two years ago, Winnipeg was one of five cities the Mental Health Commission of Canada chose to participate in an innovative 'housing first' approach to homelessness that's already been adopted in several U.S. cities.

Instead of using a sobriety model, in which authorities insist street people deal with their addictions and manage their psychiatric problems before receiving a place to live, the homeless would get a roof over their head first and then get counselling and/or addictions treatment they need.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/12/2011 (2697 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The number is impressive. More than 170 homeless people have bid goodbye to life on the street in Winnipeg over the past two years and now have a place to call their own.

For years, they slept under bridges or crashed nightly in shelters. Most suffered from addictions or mental health problems. Many had become estranged from their families. Some had not known a regular home, with a key and a comfortable bed, for more than a decade.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES
Joe Hatch's life was turned around by proper medication.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Joe Hatch's life was turned around by proper medication.

But two years ago, Winnipeg was one of five cities the Mental Health Commission of Canada chose to participate in an innovative 'housing first' approach to homelessness that's already been adopted in several U.S. cities.

Instead of using a sobriety model, in which authorities insist street people deal with their addictions and manage their psychiatric problems before receiving a place to live, the homeless would get a roof over their head first and then get counselling and/or addictions treatment they need.

Ottawa committed $110 million to underwrite the cost of the At Home/Chez Soi research and demonstration project, which is to run until the spring of 2013. So far, 1,030 people have received homes and support services in Winnipeg, Moncton, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. A similar-sized group is participating as a control group, receiving traditional services from social agencies but no home — yet.

In Winnipeg, At Home has produced a number of heartwarming success stories along with some spectacular failures.

Some participants are looking to finish their high school diplomas or do volunteer work. A few have found some form of employment. Several have made contact with long-estranged family members.

Jackie Baier, who couch-surfed and was otherwise homeless for about two years, said getting an apartment this past January came at a time when she was at her "lowest low."

She said it's taken a long time for her to fully comprehend that she now has a home and she can settle in without fear of having to move. "I'm just starting to put pictures up on my walls and feel a little bit at home."

Baier, who has two sons who live with their dad, proudly displays her kids' artwork. She hopes to take a course that will allow her to work with Child and Family Services kids or those with FASD.

Baier is also one of seven At Home participants who recently took part in a photo exhibition, called Focusing the Frame, now on display in the foyer of the new United Way headquarters on Main Street. The exhibit, combining photos and text, reveals the struggles and feelings of these former homeless persons — as well as their hopes for the future.

Joe Hatch, another program participant, has lived successfully on his own in a tidy downtown apartment since April 2010. He also took part in the Focusing the Frame project and served as a 'peer mentor' to others.

Hatch, who grew up in a middle-class Winnipeg home and is university-educated, found himself on the street after years of battling depression and anxiety. His life turned around when he was prescribed the proper medication for his condition — and secured a home through At Home. He has since done casual work for the program. "They just keep drafting me," he said with a chuckle this week.

But other program participants — some with more than a decade on the street — have had their struggles adjusting to normal life. They've had loud parties and wrecked suites. Some landlords who strongly supported the program initially have become exasperated at what they see as a lack of supervision over participants. (Case workers come calling at least once a week, and there is a crisis line, operated by the Main Street Project, that tenants and landlords can call 24/7. Counselling and other support services are also available to participants.)

Wally Ruban, operations manager at B & M Land Co., which once rented 10 suites to At Home participants, said the company has pulled out of the program. "I think it's fallen flat on its face," he said Friday.

One of the company's buildings sustained $75,000 in damage when a tenant left all of the windows in a suite wide open during -30 C weather. Another suite received more than $10,000 damage after it had essentially become a "crack house," Ruban said. In the latter case, he said the tenant "wasn't really that bad but because of the lack of supervision, he got in with the wrong crowd."

The company wasn't stuck with the costs — At Home guarantees suites are repaired or restored to their former condition. But the experiences soured Ruban, who is also president of the local Professional Property Managers Association. Several other landlords have also stopped renting to At Home clients for similar reasons, he said.

Darlene Hall, executive director of the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre, one of three agencies that are working with those being placed, said it's been gratifying to see so many longtime homeless people get their own suites.

But she said she would have liked to have seen the program devote more resources to preparing individuals for their new life — and less in compensation to landlords. "It's very difficult to take somebody who has been living on the streets for several years and put them into an apartment and think that they're going to be able to function like everybody else."

Close to three dozen landlords are providing suites for the program, as is Manitoba Housing. There are also about a half-dozen spots for program participants in the new Bell Hotel Supportive Housing complex on north Main Street.

Marcia Thomson, Manitoba co-ordinator of the At Home/Chez Soi program, acknowledges there have been bumps along the road. But she notes the program has successfully reached out to many formerly homeless people and it's achieved considerable community and social agency support. "I think it's been a learning experience for all of us."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Stories of

positive change

Seven former homeless Winnipeggers have produced an exhibit telling of their experiences in a series of illustrated storyboards on display in the foyer of the new United Way building on Main Street. The exhibit will be up until Dec. 9. Here are a few of their statements:

"When people are on the street, people look at you like garbage. They don't know who you are, what you've done or why you're out there... "

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Jackie Baier emotionally reflects on the difference between her past and present in her apartment.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jackie Baier emotionally reflects on the difference between her past and present in her apartment.

— Joe H.

"This is when I started to think that things had to get better, meaning myself. I had to get better. I had to get myself in gear and move up, not stay in the place I was."

— Bob B., in a caption for a photo of the downtown Salvation Army building

"Nobody is going to hire you if you don't have a place. They can't even get a hold of you because you don't have a phone. Now I've got both and don't just get to work, I get to do something that I want to do."

— Anon P., who takes care of the sweat lodge at Thunderbird House

"This is my living room. It's kind of plain and small, but it is very cosy for me and the dogs. It's a very nice place... compared to another place I used to sleep, it's a castle."

— Mike E., in a caption accompanying a photo of his new apartment

"I am so grateful for this view. I am so grateful to not have anyone able to knock on my window at all hours of the night. I have some sense of safe."

— Jackie Baier, referring to her new apartment

"When I found out I had a mental condition I began a period of denial and from that time on, my life changed so much. It took a long time to accept that I would have to stay on medication and see a doctor regularly."

— Mike E.

"This is the university that I got my degree from and subsequently worked at for a number of years before I became ill. It just goes to show you that not all the people on the street lack education, skills, or a good work history... "

— Joe H., from a caption of a photo of the University of Winnipeg

At Home/Chez Soi (by the numbers)

505 — number of Winnipeg participants

275 — number enrolled in the Housing First portion of the program

230 — number enrolled in a control group who will receive traditional services

171 — number of participants who have received homes since the program began in Winnipeg, November 2009

225 — number of homeless people expected to be placed under the program by 2013

36 — percentage of program participants who are female

47 — percentage of participants who have children

10 — average number of years that participants were homeless

72 — percentage of participants suffering 'major depression'

45 — percentage suffering post-traumatic stress disorder

62 — percentage with an alcoholic dependence

47 — percentage with a substance dependence

99 — percentage reporting at least one chronic physical health condition

45 — percentage reporting having a learning disability

49 — percentage who lived in foster care as children

91 — percentage who were unemployed when they entered the project

36 — number of landlords and property management companies participating in the Winnipeg portion of the Housing First program

1,500 — estimated number of homeless people in Winnipeg

— source: Mental Health Commission of Canada

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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History

Updated on Saturday, December 3, 2011 at 9:45 AM CST: Adds photo, formats text, adds fact box

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