Project to help mentally ill homeless people starts

A research project that takes homeless people with mental illness off the streets in five cities and provides them with a safe place to live was officially launched Monday, the first such effort by the new Mental Health Commission of Canada.

A research project that takes homeless people with mental illness off the streets in five cities and provides them with a safe place to live was officially launched Monday, the first such effort by the new Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The pilot study, called the At Home/Chez Soi project, involves 2,285 people who are homeless and living with a mental illness in five cities — Moncton, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver.

Altogether, 1,325 people will be given a place to live and social services over the course of the five-year study, while the others will receive services that are currently available. One of the goals is to find out more about what works well in providing services to homeless people.

Dr. Jayne Barker, director of the project, says the federal government has provided funding of $110 million for five years, but transition plans will be worked on so that at the end of the five-year study period, “nobody gets put back out on the street.”

There are an estimated 300,000 homeless people in Canada, statistics show.

“This is the first time that a project with this kind of scope has been funded and it’s a real opportunity for us to build on the good work that’s already happened and to learn much more specifically about how best to improve the outcomes of people who are homeless and mentally ill,” Barker said in an interview from Ottawa, prior to news conferences that are to be held Monday in the five cities.

“Of the homeless population it’s estimated that almost half of the people on the street have a mental illness … so it’s a very current problem affecting many Canadians.”

Each city will have a particular focus.

Moncton’s study will look at rural populations, as well as how to provide services in a fast-growing city where the mental health system is stretched, Barker said.

In Montreal, the focus will be on social housing and helping people return to the workplace.

The needs of urban aboriginal people will be highlighted in Winnipeg, where Barker said about 80 per cent of the homeless population is of aboriginal descent.

“We’ve been working really in partnership with elders in Winnipeg and a whole range of aboriginal service agencies to develop a program that is based on the medicine wheel, that is very grounded in aboriginal traditions.”

People who have a recurring substance abuse problem will be the target in Vancouver.

“We need to really improve our ability to intervene successfully with that population, and to be honest, we don’t do that well,” Barker noted. “Neither the mental health system nor the addiction system is very successful at providing services to this particular population.”

In Toronto, 300 participants — more than half from immigrant and ethno-racial groups — will get housing units.

Being homeless in Toronto is an experience that Connie Harrison, 54, lived through 10 years ago. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and living in a shelter, couch-surfing and in a room on a motel strip where homeless people were housed.

“I felt it was like the end of the road and I couldn’t concentrate on getting well because I was so busy concentrating on the bare bones of living,” she said in an interview.

“And I didn’t see any end in sight that was good, or any meaningful participation in the world.”

Harrison has served on advisory committees that provided input for those working on the commission’s housing project.

“I think it’s amazing that they’re actually listening to us, they’re listening to us and I think people want to get it right,” she said of the newly launched project.

“They’re really working hard to make sure people get nice apartments, because they know in the past, people just put in, let’s say inappropriate apartments, that doesn’t bode well for your health,” she noted.

Barker said the At Home project is using a “housing first” approach that’s been successfully tried in New York City.

In the past, mentally ill homeless people have had to jump over a lot of barriers before accessing housing — they’re expected to be on medication, stabilized, clean and sober, she said.

“It’s pretty challenging to be thinking about treatment for your mental illness when you’re hungry, when you don’t have a place to sleep, when you’re not safe. So what this approach does is it says we’ll take you as you are, and work with you from there.”

However, participants must agree that 30 per cent of their income — from welfare or disability payments, for instance — will go to the landlord.

As for Harrison, she’s doing well, living in a one-bedroom apartment where she has painted the walls green and surrounded herself with plants.

The human spirit and body are amazing and resilient, she said.

“They can take a lot and you’d think that they can’t take any more. But believe it or not, it’s like a plant, just water it a little bit.”