ASK Wellness Centre's Housing Outreach Program
Reprinted from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1), p. 29
Imagine waking up tomorrow to find yourself without a home, income or support. Imagine you also have a crippling substance use problem and a chronic mental health condition. And now imagine trying to join the ranks of society and enter the world of market housing in 21st century British Columbia!
This is the problem facing many of the people we at the Aids Society of Kamloops (ASK) Wellness Centre have been working with for the past year and a half.
The evolution of ASK's housing services
Our Housing Outreach program was created in November 2005 by a groundbreaking group of funders called the Kamloops Integrated Project. This group consists of representatives from BC Housing, Mental Health and Addictions, the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance (MEIA), Forensic Psychiatric Services and the City of Kamloops. Members of the Integrated Project were very clear that the people in the community who had the biggest needs were running into huge barriers to meeting the most basic of needs: housing.
By June 2006, our initial full-time outreach worker was joined by another full-time outreach worker funded by BC Housing, a weekend worker funded by Interior Health, and another full-time worker from the CMHA Income/Homeless Outreach pilot project. Our outreach team has had their hands full applying the "streets to home" model, helping homeless people access a legitimate income, find stable housing, and move their belongings.
To secure housing, a person needs money to pay a damage deposit and to pay rent every month. With the support of the MEIA, we've been able to fast-track people looking for housing - in many cases on the day of first contact - to get on income assistance. Sure, it's not the ideal income, but this beginning allows those who are homeless to enter a society norm most of us take for granted - that is, having a place to live, an income, medical care and much more.
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of our program is our ability to respond quickly to people's housing needs. As a non-profit organization, we are able to put money set aside by the Kamloops Integrated Project directly into the hands of landlords and support service providers. Because of this, we've been able to bypass the usual red tape challenges of most large organizations. For example, we are able to provide a damage deposit or, in some cases, the entire rent should the client not able to access income assistance or another source of funding. In other isolated instances, we've paid emergency repair costs to a landlord when the tenant has damaged the property.
We at ASK take great care to move those who are either on the verge of homelessness, or who are chronically homeless, into stable, long-term housing. With the addition of our Sustainable Housing Worker in July of this year, we now provide mediation services to help resolve ongoing tenancy issues in an effort to prevent evictions. We will also engage other community supports such as mental health and addictions services as needed.
Landlords - our most valuable resource
To make sure that we're not adding to the cycle of homelessness, we make every effort to prevent these placements from breaking down. An important part of this is building relationships with the landlords and property managers in our community.
At ASK we see ourselves as social property managers. We've hosted two landlord luncheons, because we recognize the crucial role landlords play in housing the hard-to-house† in our community. On both occasions between 15 and 20 landlords attended; they described the challenges they face and shared helpful strategies for managing their properties. Landlords have an open invitation to drop in to our centre; the coffee is always on.
The results speak
The results of our program speak for themselves. Of the 310 people who have accessed the program, 223 have not come back for more assistance. And of the 87 who have come back for assistance? They've been evicted. In many cases, the reason for eviction is problems related to crack and cocaine use.
Our hope is that now, with more supports in place - like our landlord mediation service and assistance for clients in managing money and lifestyle choices - we will be able to lower the number of people returning to the streets and shelters for survival.
About the author
Bob is Executive Director of the AIDS Society of Kamloops Wellness Centre. He previously worked as an addictions counsellor with the Phoenix Centre in Kamloops and Interior Health in the Shuswap, and has a long history of working with marginalized people.