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Housing First is vital

Frankly, I was more than a little surprised by Millard MacDonald’s comments in Wednesday’s Advocate, asserting that the links between mental illness, addictions and homelessness cannot be addressed by Housing First.

MacDonald is co-ordinator of Berachah Place, a safe zone for street people where they can spend their daytime hours keeping warm, getting a shower and their laundry done — generally getting off the streets between finding meals at other charities, and finding a bed at a shelter that night.

Berachah is an important link in the network of charities that keeps the vast majority of us from having to walk past homeless people sitting on doorsteps or sidewalks all day, asking us for handouts.

Berachah — like all the city’s shelters, mat programs, soup kitchens, clothing recyclers and (importantly) Housing First — is a part of what keeps Red Deer from having to actually confront the faces of the drug industry, mental illness and extreme family breakdown in our city.

As much as many people want to look away from homeless people and their problems, without these programs, Red Deer would not be a city you’d want to live in. Our downtown would be a desolate ghetto of misery. Truly.

That’s why I truly cannot understand why MacDonald would prioritize the path to wellness the way he does.

“They (the agencies) need to deal with addictions and mental health issues first,” MacDonald said. “They (the homeless) need to get well before they can be housed.”

That’s putting the cart before the horse. Two or three blocks ahead of the horse, in fact.

Nobody is entitled to a perfect life. Every person, every family, has problems and crises. Every family’s story has dark chapters they need to live through and learn from.

Imagine having to face your problems with no place to live. With all of your possessions in a black garbage bag — and, if you’re lucky, carried in a stolen grocery cart.

Being homeless is not your problem — it is the reason you will never be able to deal with your problems, while they only get multiplied inside you.

Mental illness, family breakdown and addictions lead people to behaviours that make them homeless. I cannot fathom why someone like MacDonald — who himself makes a lot of personal sacrifices to keep people safe until they can find their way off the streets — would believe you have to get addicts clean before they can find a place in which to live.

The mental health ward at our hospital is at maximum capacity. I don’t know if they’re even equipped to handle a large group of people with both mental illness and a drug addiction.

Red Deer stalwartly denies every application it gets for a publicly administered live-in drug treatment centre. It took years of public shaming for Red Deer to even get a temporary detox centre.

Detox is only a first step for a person with drug addiction. After the few days it takes for the drugs to leave their bodies, we send people — with all their problems and personal demons — back onto the streets.

How’s that been working for us?

I’m reaching for the kernel of truth that MacDonald is trying to express here, and maybe that’s it. Maybe his issue is that Red Deer simply won’t allow the means for people to get clean and get the long-term support needed to deal with schizophrenia or other mental health issues, and then find housing that secures them the “normal” lives the rest of us enjoy.

But in the reality we have here today, I am confident that the internationally-proven Housing First program does indeed lead people off the streets, to a place where they can work on the things that put them there.

Detox does not work for everyone. That is amply proven by the people who go through it multiple times. Nor would a full drug treatment and mental health centre work for everyone.

In the same way, some people in Red Deer’s Housing First program relapse and do things that get them kicked out. Some, but by no means all. Every success is one less addict sleeping in a shelter or behind a garbage dumpster.

Wednesday’s report in the Advocate interviewed a lifetime street person. That person has adapted to being homeless, and does not want much more than soup kitchens, Berachah Place and a spot out of the wind to spend the night. That is by no means the full story of homelessness. Many people are in a dark place daily, needing a refuge with 24/7 staff support so they can get to a place of peace, where they can find some light.

In Red Deer, that would be the Buffalo, our Housing First program. As hard a place as that can be at times, it’s the best place we have — until we get a full, medical, residential, publicly-administered drug treatment program that can also deal with mental illness.

Good luck with that. Truly.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email



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