When Steve Thurber and his buddies read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in high school, they gave each other nicknames using the book’s characters.
Since that day 38 years ago, Thurber has answered to Frodo.
Today, those who know the 54-year-old would be puzzled to hear his full name.
Up until four years ago, Frodo slept under the bridges in downtown Red Deer, hid from police in the bushes in Rotary Park and panhandled outside the shops on Ross Street.
The father of two was part of Red Deer’s other population, the street community.
Frodo says poor choices and bad employers forced him on the street for more than a decade.
How he managed to survive was pure luck because “the streets are unforgiving.”
In 2008, Frodo closed the door to the street and opened the door to his own studio apartment in the former Buffalo Hotel.
He pays $450 a month for his small apartment, equipped with a bathroom, refrigerator and stove.
Potter’s Hands Developments Ltd. bought the Buffalo Hotel in 2007 to convert the 43 rooms into 39 affordable suites for the chronically homeless, providing stable housing and a chance at a better life.
Frodo chuckles, saying that living in the Buffalo Hotel is like a scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it has saved his life.
“A lot of people have addictions and mental problems,” said Thurber.
“It’s crazy in here. But I don’t mind.
“I have my own privacy, my own room.”
The Canadian Mental Health Association staffs the building 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing emotional and practical support for the residents.
This may include helping them get identification, making medical and dental appointments and sorting out financial sources. Frodo said the staff at the Buffalo Hotel have been a lifesaver.
“I’ll probably die here,” said Frodo.
The Buffalo Hotel is one of the outlets for the Red Deer Housing Team to get people off the streets and into homes in the city.
The team is a partnership between Safe Harbour Society, Women’s Outreach and the Canadian Mental Health Association. Those looking for homes are assessed and the people with the highest needs are housed first.
Susan Saville, project manager for Canadian Mental Health Association, said at the Buffalo Hotel and other Housing First projects, the No. 1 goal is for the tenants to maintain housing.
“These are people who have been chronically homeless for whatever reason,” said Saville. “Some of them have managed to live at the Buffalo for years. Their mental and physical health has improved. They eat better. They sleep better. If they want to talk to someone at three o’clock in the morning, someone will come down and talk to them.”
Like any standard apartment building, all tenants must sign a lease agreement with the landlord. The difference with a Housing First project and other housing projects is that the tenants do not have to be clean or sober, taking medications or cleared of all their justice issues in order to move in.
Each tenant has a case manager with whom they work on service plans to reach their goals like staying sober or getting a job.
There’s also guest management system at the Buffalo where guests are limited and all guests must sign in the registrar. Saville said often tenants have lost housing in the community because they were not able to manage their guests.
The whole philosophy behind Housing First assumes it is impossible to begin treatment for drugs, sobriety, mental health or other issues, if you do not have a place to call home.
“The whole theory is if your basic needs are met, if you are housed you have access to showers and bathrooms and food, then you begin to work on the other parts of your life if you choose to,” said Saville. “That would be your mental health, your addictions, substance abuse. It’s difficult to work on those things if you are not housed. The idea is to house them first and then you start working on the other things.”
Saville said there is a low turnover rate in the Buffalo because it is permanent housing. As well, the homeless population in Red Deer shifts from day to day, week to week and season to season. She said the success is in the tenants who are paying their rent and maintaining their tenancy.
“We want people to be safe and we want the building to be well managed,” said Saville. “I think people have a feeling that the people who live here don’t care about those things. They care very much about those things. It’s just that they haven’t been able to necessarily keep themselves safe, for again there’s mental health, drugs, alcohol. . . . They are a very vulnerable population. They want to be safe. They want a home, too. They have not been able to do it on their own. So that’s where we fit in.”