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Mental Health

Affordable Housing for All

Alice Sundberg

Reprinted from "Housing: Discrimination and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 10 (3), p. 5

When I first got involved in the social housing field in the early 1980s, things were different. Back then, the federal government funded the development of thousands of units of subsidized housing each year for low-income individuals and families across Canada. Meanwhile, many people living with mental illness were separated from mainstream society, living in mental health institutions.

By the mid ’90s, both those realities had changed. Federal social housing programs were withdrawn in 1993. And, most mental health facilities had begun discharging residents into the community in an effort to reconnect them to their families and social networks.

Most of us working in social housing were very supportive of a shift toward more inclusive communities. However, we were also concerned about the shortage of affordable housing to accommodate these vulnerable members of our society. With no new social housing being developed, where would these folks who were being de-institutionalized find suitable, safe, secure and affordable homes in the communities?

Those of us working and volunteering in the social housing sector predicted a rise in homelessness similar to what had already been happening in the United States.1 By the end of the ’90s our prediction was, unfortunately, coming true. And who was most affected by this trend? In too many cases, it was those with multiple barriers—that is, very low income, mental illness, addiction, the stigma attached to mental illness and addiction, and inadequate supports to face the challenges.

A few years ago, I met a person who had been a social worker at Riverview Hospital tasked with helping the discharged patients locate homes they could afford on provincial income assistance. The income assistance shelter allowance was a minimal $325 a month at that time. An option that appeared very attractive at the time was the stock of single-room occupancy hotels (often called just SROs) in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES).

Looking back, this former social worker wishes he had known more about the social conditions in the DTES. He realizes now that he sent these former patients into an extremely dangerous neighbourhood, rife with predators and too much ready access to illicit drugs and substance use activity.

The hopeful dream of more inclusive neighbourhoods and acceptance into mainstream society had become a nightmare for too many people living there. And it became ever more clear that the driving rationale for the government’s shift in policy was less about the well-being of people living with mental illnesses and more about saving money. Without the funding to provide community-based supports, these housing conditions simply made matters worse.

The current situation

Today, we’ve learned a lot from our mistakes, and it appears that a more robust and coordinated response is taking shape. Community agencies have built up their knowledge and skills about the roots of, and solutions to, homelessness and have developed strong networks of support. Innovative approaches like Housing First2 show recognition that permanent housing with appropriate supports helps people recover and stabilize. Collaboration among health, social service and housing providers is beginning to make a difference. But there is so much more that needs to be done!

Government and charitable funding agencies are continually urging non-profit agencies to be more collaborative. Yet, government agencies still remain in silos, uncoordinated and largely unwilling to share budgets or work together. There are, however, a few isolated examples of successful joint efforts, such as BC’s Homelessness Intervention Project (HIP), established in 2009.

HIP brought senior managers from key government agencies in five BC cities—including health authorities, BC Housing and the Ministry of Social Development—together with homeless-serving agencies. In Prince George, Kelowna, Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria, they met face-to-face monthly to discuss the individual and systemic barriers to getting people housed.

The process worked remarkably well. Though no new resources were provided, performance goals were set, and the senior managers made sure they could report positive results. Policies, procedures and practices were changed to address the barriers identified. For example, it was recognized that the practice of discharging hospital patients to emergency shelters was resulting in a return to homelessness. The HIP team devised a way to make sure that support workers were brought in before a patient was discharged, and a major housing provider offered priority access to units in their buildings. Thus the practice of discharging patients into homelessness was ended in that community.

In just one year, over 2,400 people got housing and supports to help them stay housed.3 Those numbers stayed consistent for 2011, and the pilot project became a permanent program in 2012. While the program no longer tracks results, it continues to house people through the joint efforts of income assistance outreach workers, BC Housing and community service agencies.

What lies ahead?

Another critical issue related to creating truly inclusive communities that provide affordable housing for all is the stigma of mental illness and addiction. It seems ‘acceptable’ in our society, and notably to our government policy and funding decision-makers, to allow people with these conditions to languish on the streets, where they become more ill. Would we find it acceptable if people with cancer or heart disease were left untreated and unhoused? It appears that some people see those with mental illness as less deserving than those with other, more visible illnesses.

The work of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and other mental health organizations to raise awareness and foster public understanding of mental illness is helping to change attitudes. The media, however, loves to focus on the tragic stories of murder and mayhem that occasionally occur. Rarely do we hear stories of success and recovery.

One success story that’s very telling is that of the RainCity Housing Society’s Fraser Street Concurrent Disorders Transitional Housing Program. Fraser Street provides supported housing for people who want to live a substance-free life. It is an alcohol- and drug-free facility located outside of the Downtown Eastside, providing the infrastructure and support to help clients achieve long-term health and stability.

When the project was first proposed, the neighbourhood erupted in opposition. Over 1,000 people attended public hearings for the rezoning, with the majority apparently strongly against the project. Fortunately, the City of Vancouver’s Council of the day was progressive and knowledgeable; the rezoning was approved and the project went ahead.

Now, seven years later, many of those neighbours who so strongly objected to the project have completely turned around. They’ve seen the positive impact the supportive housing has for the residents, and the positive impacts the residents have had in the neighbourhood. (You can read more about this story and others in the pages ahead.)

It’s important for the media to pick up on stories like this, to help break down the stereotypes and start to open eyes and minds to the value of inclusive communities. We can and should make sure that government, business and civil society work together to provide affordable housing for all!

About the author
Alice is a housing and community development consultant. She has been involved in social housing advocacy, education and development since 1981. This includes 16 years as a development consultant for co-op and non-profit housing, and 11 years as Executive Director of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association. Since 2007, Alice has focused on analyzing and meeting community needs related to housing and poverty. She is a past chair of the Metro Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness
  1. Donohoe, M. (2004). Homelessness in the United States: History, Epidemiology, Health Issues, Women, and Public Policy. Medscape.

  2. Homeless Hub. (n.d.) Housing First.

  3. BC Ministry of Social Development. (2012). BC Homeless Intervention Project.

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