Reprinted from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1), pp. 31-32
Who would have thought, in 1971, that the need to get high-risk people off the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside would expand to the point of needing several shelter, residential and support programs reaching across the Lower Mainland? No one anticipated that every form of social safety net would be as overwhelmed as they've become.
The Lookout Emergency Aid Society's housing program began 36 years ago with a three-bed, night-time emergency shelter in what was then known as Skid Row - and now known as the Downtown Eastside (DTES). This shelter opened in response to a growing trend of older homeless men showing up at a youth hostel. Since then, Lookout has grown to offer a range of housing options, including some that have 24-hour staff support and others that are for more independent clients, with support offered as needed.
Our vision is larger than "emergency shelter." We are a safety net for society's most vulnerable people. We don't limit ourselves to a narrow mandate, except that as an adult-oriented service, we are not suitable for children. Those coming to us face a wide variety of challenges, including mental illness, chronic alcoholism, problem substance use, mental/physical handicaps, chronic health problems (including HIV/AIDS), and legal issues - or they are simply unable to cope. People dealing with mental health issues predominate, particularly those with addictions or other issues that prevent them from securing or maintaining stable housing.
1971: First emergency shelter opens in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES)
1978: A long-term housing program gradually implemented: Lookout extended support to other residents of the hotel in which the emergency shelter space was leased
1981: Built first facility housing the now 42-bed emergency shelter as well as 39 supportive, long-stay units
Much more than just a bed and meals
In an internal survey Lookout did in the mid '90s, we found that 4% of those with multiple problems living in the DTES die within one year if we only provide emergency shelter during crisis. Where we have been able to engage and assist people with our take-care-of-whatever-is-today's-problem type of outreach service, we have seen the mortality rate change to 0.4%. This is a tenfold improvement in life expectancy - and immeasurable quality-of-life improvement goes along with it.
Lookout's 24-hour shelters are much more than a bed and meals. We provide crisis interventions, access to a free phone and internet, free laundry, clothing and showering facilities. Lookout staff assess needs, do case planning, provide liaison/referral services and advocacy, and try to bridge people to treatment services and financial supports. We work with each individual to link them to the supports they need to break the cycle of homelessness.
Our society realized that, as a shelter provider, we were serving in a band-aid role - that housing was the real solution needed. Today, we have several supportive housing programs in existing Vancouver market† housing (the Jubilee, Pender and Avalon Hotels in the DTES). Through relationships with local landlords - built on a basis of: "the landlord gets the rent; Lookout workers assist with the problems" - we are able to provide housing without having to construct new buildings. We have built some housing, though, including BC's first apartments specifically for people at high risk of, or having a chronic history of, homelessness. We named it after Jim Green, a man who has established a number of housing units for people in the DTES.
Challenges of a low-barrier approach
Offering consistent, non-judgmental, non-sectarian, individualized service, with as low-barrier† an approach as possible, has worked well for Lookout.
There are challenges to having a low-barrier approach, however. The main one is that you must always work to keep to your purpose: to help those in need. In what is a housing provider's or landlord's market, it's very easy to avoid helping those who are considered difficult to house - there are always 'reasons' to evict or to not even choose to house a difficult or challenging person. So be aware of the trap of serving only those people who are easy to serve.
We have adopted a philosophy of only barring people when there is no alternative for their own or for other's safety. We often review and lift those bars if circumstances change. For example, we had a tenant pull a knife on a staff member. This caused safety concerns, so the tenant was removed from the program. A couple years later, this tenant was again looking for housing. After reviewing his rehabilitation activities, we allowed him to move back in.
Currently, there is a lot of discussion in BC around building social housing.† One issue that has come up is the size of the housing units provided. My gut feeling is that at Lookout we see better quality-of-life outcomes when people are in larger living spaces. We are not enamoured with suites of less than 200 sq. ft., and we fully support having toilets and showers in suites, rather than shared. When units are very small, we are constantly mitigating against the depressing and constraining effects it has on people by developing other amenity spaces and support programs nearby. We have our greatest turnover in the SRO or smaller spaces, and the most success with people in the 500-550 sq. ft., one-bedroom apartments at the Jim Green residence - success in terms of long-term stability of housing, less hospitalization, staying with addiction treatment and improving life skills.
Despite our growth, we very much resist trying to limit the people we serve to accessing only our own services. We always try to link them to other community agencies or supports. This ensures that when (especially in the shelter, but also in the housing) they do leave us, the supports remain in place wherever they may go.
I love to think that we could reduce our role as an emergency shelter provider, but this will only happen when more quality, supportive housing is available to the people who need it most.
About the author
Al is the Emergency Services Manager at the Lookout Emergency Aid Society.