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Mental Health

Community is Where Home Begins

Lessons from Calgary

Louise Gallagher

Reprinted from "Housing: Discrimination and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 10 (3), p. 33

Since 2008, when Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness was launched, the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF) and its agency partners have learned a great deal about what it takes to house formerly homeless individuals and families. Our experience shows that everyone responds to housing. Everyone responds to caring, compassionate support. And it always takes time, patience, commitment and resolve. It also takes community.

In 2007 the Calgary Committee to End Homelessness (CCEH) was formed in response to the city’s growing homelessness crisis. CCEH was a community-based, multi-stakeholder leadership group that included provincial and municipal representatives. With a call to action focused on ending homelessness rather than finding new ways to manage or cope with it, the CCEH created the 10 Year Plan and selected the CHF to implement it.

At the foundation of Calgary’s 10 Year Plan—as well as the homelessness plans of the provincial government and other major cities in Alberta—is Housing First. More than just a model or framework for ending homelessness, Housing First enacts the belief that we can and must end homelessness, together.

Housing First requires the commitment of every level of government, the social service sector and public service providers such as police, bylaw enforcement officials and health care providers. It also requires every community member to believe in the right and necessity of housing the most vulnerable, regardless of their mental, physical or financial condition.

Housing First offers stable housing with supports that respect the unique circumstances and needs of each individual or family. There are no preconditions for tenancy, such as sobriety, and there is no mandatory participation in programs such as counselling or rehab treatment.

For those who have endured years, if not decades, of sleeping on a mat in an emergency shelter or holed up in a makeshift shelter tucked into a corner of a city park, home can be a distant memory. Homelessness has often drained their resilience and capacity to make change happen. The less resilient people become and the longer they remain trapped in homelessness, the greater their use of public services. Our social systems and public services are strained to keep up to the challenges they face every day.

Providing these individuals and families with housing and support gives them hope that change is possible. “Homelessness robbed me of a decade of my life,” says one man eight months after being housed directly from the streets into an apartment owned by CHF. “I can’t get those years back, or the things I lost.” But he can get back the thing that was lacking the most while he wandered the streets under the haze of alcohol and the despair of homelessness. “I’ve got hope now,” he says. “And with hope, it’s possible to get back dignity, self-esteem and maybe even a relationship with my kids.”

Everyone belongs in community

As a community, when faced with the prospect of housing formerly homeless individuals in our neighbourhoods, we often fear for the safety of our families, our children, ourselves. We fear our property values will drop. We are skeptical that housing people directly out of homelessness will work.

“Why here?” people ask. “Why not in an industrial park or someplace where they won’t be seen on the streets every day?”

We cannot end homelessness when we stand on opposite sides of the street and say, “I belong here. You don’t.”

Accepting and celebrating diversity is an important part of ending homelessness. It means we are willing to acknowledge that though we have different experiences, we are all human beings with the right to safe, secure housing. We all belong in our communities.

Since 2008, over 6,000 people have been housed through Calgary’s 10 Year Plan. The majority of those people are still living in their homes. According to the Alberta Human Services’ A Plan for Alberta: Ending Homelessness in 10 Years: 3 Year Progress Report released in 2013, 80% of people housed through Housing First initiatives throughout the province remain stably housed.1

It has taken communities that are willing to work together. It has required setting aside our differences. And, it has required saying, “You belong here. You are welcome in my community.”

A rocky road to tolerance

It hasn’t always been an easy road or straight path. In one community, Calgary Homeless Foundation purchased an existing apartment building and contracted an agency to provide case management to 27 formerly homeless individuals with minimal needs for support, who were moved into the building.

A year later, CHF met with its agency partners and changed the housing model to serve more high-needs clients with long-term lived experience of homelessness. To facilitate the change in operations, CHF contracted a different agency to operate the building.

The existing tenants were transitioned out over time as new tenants moved in. During the transition phase, some of the original tenants had difficulty adjusting to the new model of operation. For example, in the past each tenant had a key to the main front door, whereas the new model required tenants to buzz for entry. Ensuring that staff knew who was in the building at all times required more stringent guest management. So, each tenant had to agree to abide by the new rules. This was difficult for those original tenants who previously had free in-and-out access and could invite guests without having them screened.

Due to their long-term homeless experience, some of the new tenants sometimes exhibited anti-social behaviours in the neighbouring community, such as loitering, being under the influence of alcohol or panhandling aggressively, These behaviours resulted in increased calls to police and concerned calls to the area’s city councillor.

When it first purchased the building, CHF connected with the community association about the planned housing model. Relations were strong, and prior to the change in housing model, the neighbourhood wasn’t aware that the building housed formerly homeless Calgarians.

CHF did not advise the community of the operational changes that were taking place at the building, however. This oversight led to the community feeling blind-sided when issues began to arise during the transition from one agency and operation to the other. Because many of the new tenants initially appeared to be visibly homeless, neighbours didn’t perceive them as ‘housed.’ And because the neighbours didn’t have any frame of reference as to who their new neighbours were, they feared what they perceived to be increased homelessness in their community.

CHF and the agency that managed the housing recognized that the transition process hadn’t been handled well. They began to meet frequently with the community association and police, as well as with neighbours, to talk about the situation and what could be done to make it right. There were additional face-to-face meetings with local businesses, door knocking and community meetings, as well as meetings with the City Councillor and tenants to find solutions. Eventually, the unease quieted.

Through open communication, listening and respecting different points of view, tensions have lessened. For the tenants, as housing stability improves their well-being, there are fewer interactions with police and bylaw enforcement. For the neighbours, their greater understanding of how complex it is for a person with a homeless identity to move into community has resulted in greater efforts to welcome the new residents. For example, the community association held a Christmas tea party to get to know these new neighbours.

Building common ground

Ending homelessness requires patience, persistence, passion and compassion—and not just for the individual moving out of homelessness. This care and concern must also be extended to the people living in the communities where the formerly homeless people are housed, and for the agencies doing the front-line work of making it happen.

Ending homelessness isn’t about solving all the problems in someone’s life or forcing a community to accept change. It’s about building common ground. It requires a network of supports and resources that provide the stability for each person to be able to thrive in a community where everyone feels safe and welcome. And, it’s about letting go of the belief that because someone is different, there is no place for them to be at home in our neighbourhoods and communities.

Everyone belongs in our communities, because community is where people find themselves most at home.

 
About the author
Louise has worked in the homeless-serving sector for the past 10 years and is currently the Manager of Communications at the Calgary Homeless Foundation. She is passionate about empowering people to be the change they want to create in the world and about engaging community in the mission to end homelessness
Footnotes
  1. Alberta Secretariat for Action on Homelessness. (2013, January). A Plan for Alberta: Ending homelessness in 10 years: 3 year progress report. www.humanservices.alberta.ca/documents/homelessness-3-year-progress-report.pdf.

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