Homes for the homeless
New approach means shelter first, then getting straight
By: Larry Kusch
Posted: 25/09/2010 1:00 AM | Comments: 6
Growing up middle class in East Kildonan, Joe Hatch never dreamed he would one day become homeless. Nobody does.
But the former University of Winnipeg records office worker and sociology grad found himself on the street last year, the result of a lifetime battle with depression and some bad luck.
With emergency shelter beds at a premium, he spent many miserable nights under a bridge, cold and hungry, dirty and wet. He also suffered from sleep deprivation. A non-drinker, he couldn't use alcohol to pass out at night like some of his friends on the street.
"I didn't have a belt. I was using a rope to tie around my waist. My feet were so swollen and shredded, I was wearing size 11 shoes on size 9 feet," Hatch said this week.
But now, thanks to an innovative program sponsored by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Hatch has a clean, safe place to call home while receiving help to control his depression.
The $110 million federally funded initiative, called At Home/Chez Nous, is blazing a new path in Canada for dealing with homelessness.
Instead of using the old sobriety model, where authorities insist that street people deal with their addictions and manage their psychiatric problems before receiving a place to live, At Home, launched last year, is providing people with a home first — usually a furnished apartment in a privately owned building — followed by counselling and/or addictions treatment. Each person is assigned a caseworker to help them adjust to their new life off the street.
Although new to Canada, the housing-first model has already proved successful in several U.S. cities. So far in Winnipeg, 100 homeless people have been recruited for the national project, with 60 already settled into their new abodes.
At least one city emergency shelter director said this week that the initiative has already helped ease the pressure on institutions such as his. "I can palpably feel the lower degree of stress in our shelter," said Brian Bechtel, executive director of the Main Street Project, which has also shifted its focus in the past year to a housing-first model of helping people off the street. It has found homes for 15 street people in that time.
Marcia Thomson, the Winnipeg site co-ordinator for At Home, said while a number of participants have had difficulties adjusting to their new circumstances, hosting loud parties or simply going AWOL, others have flourished. "From my point of view, it's gone overwhelmingly well," she said.
By 2013, the project hopes to have found a residence for up to 300 homeless people in Winnipeg. Four other Canadian cities are participating in the national initiative, which also has a research component. The local project is devoted to aboriginal people, which account for an estimated 70 per cent of the city's homeless.
Thomson said the reaction among homeless persons, upon hearing that a fully furnished suite is awaiting them, has ranged from surprise and distrust to disbelief and gratitude.
Although some have caused trouble for landlords, hosting loud parties for their street friends, others have been very possessive about their new home, treating it like their own private sanctuary.
"I can give you the example of (a participant) who regularly visits the street, but he doesn't tell people where he lives," Thomson said. "He keeps that very much an individual thing for himself. He doesn't want to jeopardize that. But he still uses the street as his social network, so to speak."
For Hatch, a quiet-spoken 50-year-old who enjoys playing guitar and once jammed with the likes of Big Dave McLean, the modest one-bedroom downtown apartment he's had since April is a source of pride.
"It's made such a difference for me, just to be able to come home to your own place and have the security…" he said in an interview this week in his tidy suite.
Hatch, long separated from his wife and unable to work since 1998 because of anxiety attacks and depression, saw his life turn for the worse two years ago when his landlord took ill and he was forced out of the house he had rented for the past 18 years. Unable to find a new home in a tight rental market, he stayed with friends for several months before running out of options and landing on the street last summer.
He was homeless for three months, winding up in jail after a psychotic episode that he links to long-term use of anti-depressants and a misdiagnosis of his condition. His memory of the event that led to his incarceration is hazy.
Hatch was living in a halfway house when a probation officer helped get him into the At Home program, where he's been described as a model participant. He's also on new meds that have done him a world of good.
"Now that I've had my medication changed, people say, 'Well, you're a different person now.' Yeah, I'm Joe now, the way I used to be," he said.
Hatch now spends considerable time doing volunteer work, including a couple of days a week at the Agape Table soup kitchen, where he occasionally sees a few of his old pals from the street. (His Cree nickname on the street was Kîyâsk, meaning seagull or scavenger "because I was so darn good at picking up butts," he laughs.) Hatch is looking to upgrade his computer skills. A computer supplied by the Ma Maw Wi Chi Itata Centre, one of several agencies in the city that are assisting with the At Home project, sits on his kitchen table. And he hopes that his improved health will one day allow him to pursue a career again.
Meanwhile, Bechtel said he has great hopes for the homeless initiatives now underway in Winnipeg. He noted that next year, the former Bell Hotel will be renovated to provide a home for another 42 people.
"We're getting to a place that if all of this rolls out well over the next couple of years, we could have people walking downtown and going 'this feels different,'" he said of the area's atmosphere. "I really believe that."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2010 A6