Reaching Out

On communication, community and crumbling brick walls

Kara Keam

Web-only article from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1)

Three years ago I moved to Kelowna from East Vancouver. I struggled to feel at home in the Okanagan and missed the co-op housing community where I had raised my daughter. In the co-op I experienced the joy and comfort of affordable housing, neighbours who helped out with child care, sharing meals, celebrating holidays, mentorship and friendship. I worked together with a diverse group of people on common goals such as a beautiful, safe and healthy neighbourhood where everyone could contribute and find purpose. I wanted to help other people find that sense of community.

In September 2006 I was hired as an outreach worker with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to assist at-risk for homelessness and homeless people in Kelowna.

Clients and other agencies looked to me for help finding low-income housing. The problem was that there didn't appear to be any. There's a huge gap between the high number of people needing social housing and the low number of affordable units available. Kelowna has a very low vacancy rate (0.6%),1 which means there's very little rental housing stock of any kind.

Bridging: between clients and landlords

Despite the shortage of vacancies, I began to look for local landlords to sell on the idea of having my homeless clients as tenants. Fortunately, the first landlord I dealt with was a very compassionate man who agreed to rent to two of my homeless clients. Unfortunately, the clients weren't able to keep the housing due to behaviour around unresolved drug and alcohol issues. But through the relationship with that landlord I learned many things that have helped me in working with other landlords.

Guidelines I use when helping clients move from the street into housing:

  • Ensure tenancy rules are understood—I don't assume that everyone knows or understands their rights and responsibilities under the rental agreement. I sit down with my clients and work through a list of house rules - these may be the landlord's existing rules, or I may work with the client to come up with their own house rules based on their challenges to maintain housing in the past. Rules can vary. They can range from no cooking in the room, to no guests after 10 p.m. and no drugs or alcohol allowed on the premises. By taking the time to educate the client - and the landlord, who sometimes has questions about the Residential Tenancy Act - a better working relationship is established between them.

  • Serve as a mediator—Landlords don't want to deal with emergencies or evictions. They are happy to have someone they can trust to mediate if any problems come up.

  • Encourage a sense of ownership—Helping clients decorate and personalize their space creates a home. Finding a home after living on the streets or in an emergency shelter is cause for celebration. A gift of new sheets and towels is a great way to honour their achievement. (We received a small gift of money that we use for this purpose.)

  • Support a sense of pride in accomplishment—Help clients create manageable, personalized, weekly to-do lists. This gives them direction, purpose and pride in what they are able to accomplish.

  • Maintain contact—I meet or check in with clients weekly to see how they are doing, praise their weekly successes and work through any challenges that have come up. I may do a house visit, make a phone call, meet them for coffee or drop into a group social event to chat and catch up on all their activities. Focusing on their hopes, dreams and goals helps clients move from thinking about their problems to thinking about what is possible.

  • Establish camaraderie—When possible, we introduce our clients to their neighbours and work on building relationships within that community. We encourage them to look out for each other.

When a healthy relationship is created between landlord and tenant, they are both surprised to find that their view of each other changes. They come to treat one another as neighbours with a common goal, rather than adversaries on opposite sides of the fence.

Those weekly contacts with clients keep me inspired. It is important to focus on the small picture of community and individual accomplishments, rather than on the bigger view of what is wrong with our modern society. This is how we-re able to move forward in a positive way.

Bridging: between clients and service providers

There are many caring service providers in Kelowna that offer excellent front-line care. This care ranges from emergency shelters, detox, alcohol and drug treatment, health services and social work. However, they all work within rules, policies and ideas that are often seen as brick walls by the people needing their services. It is extremely difficult for a person without a phone, clock or calendar can make an appointment for April 29 at 2 p.m. and actually get there.

One of my roles as an outreach worker has been to create relationships with service providers, find out how their agencies operate and be the bridge that makes access to their services possible for my clients.

This bridge building led to the formation of Partners in Collaborative Care. This group, made up of front-line workers from a variety of community programs,2 meets weekly. We work on individual case concerns and brainstorm ideas about safety, health and housing issues.

This meeting makes the work we are doing individually transparent to our colleagues and creates opportunity for feedback. It can be challenging at times, when you have differences of opinion. But participants' willingness to move from a personal agenda to a community perspective has strengthened our professional relationships.

What we can accomplish as a community of services and supports is far more effective than what I can accomplish on my own. As a larger voice, the Partners in Collaborative Care can speak to the bigger concerns about public and social policies that affect our clients' well-being. This also helps ensure our clients' acceptance into the larger community. Brick walls begin to crumble.

Building community: the cornerstone of change

Homelessness is an outward symptom of a larger disease rooted in loneliness and isolation. Community is an antidote - and the cornerstone of real and lasting change. But the flow of openness and acceptance needs to start in our own individual lives.

I feel increasingly at home in Kelowna as I grow through my experiences with clients and the relationships I'm building with the larger community. What started out as assisting clients in finding and keeping housing has turned into a compassionate response to the complex lives my neighbours with no fixed addresses live each day.

 
About the author
Kara is an Outreach Worker with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Kelowna Branch. This is a new position funded for three years by BC Housing to augment the work being done in her community under CMHA BC's Income/Homelessness Outreach Project
Footnotes:
  1. Canada Mortgage and Housing. (2006). Rental market report: Canada highlights. www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/odpub/esub/64667/64667_2006_A01.pdf

  2. Agencies involved in Partners in Collaborative Care include: Alexandra Gardner Women & Children Safe Centre, Coordinated Okanagan Brain Injury Services, Crossroads Treatment Centre, Interior Health, Kelowna Gospel Mission, Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society, Okanagan Boys and Girls Clubs and Okanagan Metis Children and Family Services.

 

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