Already in Our Backyard

Rudy Small

Reprinted from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1), pp. 36-37

Coast Foundation began providing supported housing in 1972. Jackie Hooper, a mental health consumer, came up with the idea of buying an apartment block to provide housing and a healing and supportive community for people with mental illness. The plan was to take people out of boarding homes and Riverview Hospital and to provide them with their own apartment, a support worker and a housing subsidy.

Jackie shopped the idea around, and Coast agreed to pioneer the concept. Today, Coast owns and/or manages 12 different housing locations in Vancouver that provide apartment accommodation for 309 people with mental illness. Coast also provides supported independent living (SIL) units in market rental housing for 153 people.

Coast's supported housing model ensures that our clients have help from their housing worker to search for, secure and keep housing. We have found that having a housing worker as an advocate and support is vital for most clients.

Unfortunately, it is still a challenge to place tenants in market housing, despite the fact that a person living with mental illness is as good a neighbour as anyone else. Many Coast tenants actively contribute to their communities by serving on strata (some Coast apartments are located in condominium complexes) or cooperative boards or by becoming involved in Neighbourhood Watch programs.

One barrier is that the rent subsidy for our clients is too low. Many neighbourhoods in Vancouver don't have any decent apartments for $750 a month, which is the maximum allowable rent. The $375 housing portion of disability assistance is topped up with funds from Vancouver Coastal Health, but only to the $750 rental charge ceiling.

Other major barriers are directly related to discrimination and stigma. Some landlords believe that Coast clients might be dangerous and may scare away other tenants. Some landlords view people receiving Persons with Disabilities assistance as "welfare" recipients, and worry that they won't pay their rent. Landlords are permitted to ask about source of income or to run a credit check. Since most Coast tenants have never had credit, they must reveal their source of income. Disability benefits and income assistance are managed and distributed through the same Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance offices. Thus, disclosing source of income often serves as a barrier to obtaining apartments.

Much work still needs to be done to educate landlords and neighbours about people with mental illness. At Coast's annual general meeting in 2001, a motion was put forward to change Coast's name from Coast Foundation Society to Coast Mental Health Society. The motion was defeated, because clients and staff did not want to use an agency name that contained the words "mental health." Most of the people who voted against the motion did so because they thought the "mental health" label would prevent people from getting decent housing.

Fortunately, there are a small number of private landlords who are willing to house people with mental illness. For our staff, building relationships with these landlords is an essential part of assisting clients. Landlords who have problems with tenants often feel quite isolated and unsure of what to do. They may take the only course they know: eviction. By getting to know landlords as individuals and by using every opportunity to provide mental health education and information, we usually develop strategies that meet the landlords' needs and expand housing opportunities at the same time.

It is critical that these relationships result in successful experiences of providing housing for people with mental illness. My experience is that when landlords and their tenants are provided with problem-solving support and mediation services, people with mental illness become highly desirable tenants. After people move into their homes, there are rarely complaints.

It is safe to have a neighbour or tenant who has a mental illness. Coast tenants and buildings fit seamlessly into neighbourhoods. When people say, "I do not want housing for people with a mental illness in my neighbourhood or building," they don't realize that "those people" - brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers - are already in their 'backyard.'

 
About the author

Rudy is the Supported Housing Manager for Coast Foundation Society. He is a Registered Psychiatric Nurse and has worked in mental health for over 30 years. Currently, Rudy manages 20 community housing workers who serve 462 people with a mental illness living in supported housing in Vancouver.

 

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