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Mental Health

Housing First, Then COVID-19

The importance of having a home when you are riding out a pandemic

Kurt

Reprinted from the COVID-19 issue of Visions Journal, 15 (2), pp. 37-39

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I am at the end of my one-year term on the Housing First subsidy program.* At first, the program helped me get my own place while I worked on getting income assistance and employment. Now, I have moved into a new place: I am living in a two-bedroom apartment with my 16-year-old daughter, and we are trying to reconnect.

For as long as I can remember, since I started living on my own, I’ve been in and out of homelessness. Before I got on to the [Housing First] program, I was living with my girlfriend of four years. We had a cycle where things would be good until we got into a fight. She lived rurally so either I would be out on her property with no ride to get into town or she would tell me to pack my things and then she would drop me off somewhere in town. After that, I’d stay with friends or family until we decided to keep working on things.

A friend of mine who is a mental health worker suggested to me that we were in a codependent cycle of abuse. I had never thought of things this way before, but I knew the description was right. This friend told me that there was a program that could help people who experienced “chronic homelessness,” and so I applied. I was interviewed and accepted into the program. They helped me find my first one-bedroom apartment in town.

I was so happy to finally have a place of my own. I have three teenage daughters, who were living with their mother, so having the apartment in town helped me to connect with them. My eldest daughter in particular was having a hard time at her mom’s place in town, and I was able to support her more. Things were good for a couple weeks but then the tenant upstairs from me was having mental health issues. My daughter was afraid to come to my place. Eventually, the landlords asked him to leave and another tenant moved in. Things got better after that.

Before the pandemic hit, my days mostly consisted of trying to make it to appointments set up for me by my housing support worker and getting food into my body. Often I felt lethargic as I’m impacted severely by changes in the seasons. Over the winter, I’d spent a lot of time inside, not getting out. I was not working much at this time as I was undergoing an assessment with WorkBC to try to finally understand what kept me from being the best worker I could be. Through the assessment, an occupational therapist was able to explain a lot to me. [Support workers] helped me apply for income assistance for Persons with a Disability (PWD). I couldn’t afford to rent a place on my own before because of my inconsistent paycheques. I got onto PWD and I had just started working when COVID-19 hit, so they sent all the workers home.

Things got hard during the pandemic. I was finally feeling an upswing in terms of going back to work, but then my whole life had to take a back seat. I work for a company that does construction and other stuff. I really enjoy it and had worked for this employer on and off for the past five years. The boss has always been super supportive of me, no matter what I’m dealing with. I’m lucky because of this. Having this work to do when I’m feeling good helps my confidence levels.

My confidence was truly shaken after my prospects of work were cut short by the pandemic. I was in fear again, of when I was going to find my next window of opportunity, and if it weren’t for having stable housing, I would have been ready to quit life.

At the same time, my eldest daughter was already feeling wary about coming to my place because of the previous situation with the upstairs tenant. I had some rebuilding to do in that relationship, but now everyone was being told to stay inside. Luckily, my daughter was able to stay at a friend’s house where she felt safe, but I knew that would not be able to last for too long. But with all that time on my hands, I started drinking, reverting back to old habits to distract myself.

With COVID-19, I don’t know what to do in simple situations anymore. COVID-19 makes simple things complicated. Often I find I’m avoiding places because I can’t figure out what the protocol might be. It makes me feel diminished in my mental capacity on top of the struggle I already deal with. For example, I like to play guitar and have had lots of bands over the years. COVID-19 made it impossible to get together with people to jam. But jamming has always been a big part of my mental well-being.

But there have been positive outcomes, too. One positive outcome of the pandemic was being able to prioritize. With work being slim, I had time to talk with my housing worker about moving into a two-bedroom apartment in order to accommodate my daughter and have her live with me. I couldn’t bear to live with myself if my daughter ended up on the street. We were lucky: we were able to find an apartment for both of us.

My daughter and I have now been living together for three months. We haven’t lived together since she was 10 years old. We have a lot to learn in regards to becoming good roommates for each other. Along with my own mental health issues, mainly in regards to staying motivated and focused on the task at hand, it has been challenging at times to figure out how to navigate issues stemming from living together, such as respecting each other’s space and methods of doing things. We are both getting counselling now through the Family Solutions Program with CMHA and it’s slowly helping us work on our communication.

Another good thing to come out of the pandemic is being able to focus on my mental health and take the time to think about what I learned about myself through my assessment with WorkBC. I suffered a lot of concussions when I was younger. I’m noticing now how these things are affecting me in my older age. Having the time off has allowed me to address those mental health concerns by researching better mental health tools and getting serious about my diet, and also [to address] sleep deprivation concerns through working on better sleep habits.

But it’s also way easier to hermit inside with your meds, and harder to get out to socialize. I found I would volunteer at any opportunity, like helping a friend move furniture or any work I could do, just to keep busy.

Because of COVID-19, I can call my doctor for a phone appointment, which is great—easier than before. I feel that in a way, COVID-19 has simplified society and made us aware of our overuse of services, such as emergency room services. Without having to worry about transportation to appointments or sitting in a doctor’s office, I feel more comfortable accessing my doctor via the phone than going into an appointment or running to the ER first.

The pandemic has also made me realize that I need to get out of the drug culture altogether, like trying to make different friends through volunteer experiences or by choosing not to hang out with negative peers. It’s terrifying to do drugs right now in society because what was already a toxic supply is becoming more toxic from people cutting drugs they are supplying to acquaintances. Everyone is trying to make a dollar wherever they can so they are cutting personal supply with cutting agents. In one way, I feel like a toxic drug supply in society is way more of a danger to society than COVID-19 itself. If all of our efforts for COVID-19 to protect people who are immunocompromised ignore the fact that a toxic drug supply only increases the prevalence of potential immunocompromise, then how are we actually protecting people?

Without housing and my work to stay healthy, I would lose myself. I now have a base to fight my fight from. I love going to work but it’s really hard to maintain that when you don’t have somewhere to recharge. Since they reopened the economy, I have been called for a couple jobs but it’s still slim and it’s just temporary work.

Housing First helped me get back on my feet and start moving in a healthier direction. Having housing has helped me separate the things I can control from the things outside of my control. I have a whole new perspective on how to support myself, thanks to my housing.

*Housing First is a community-based response to homelessness, providing people with assistance in finding and obtaining safe, secure and permanent housing as quickly as possible.

About the author

Kurt currently lives in Williams Lake, BC, where he was born and raised. He has three teenage daughters and works in the construction industry

As told to Leah Martin, Participant Support Coordinator, Housing First Williams Lake, operated by CMHA Cariboo Chilcotin Branch

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