Changing a community's view of mental health and addictions housing
Reprinted from "Housing: Discrimination and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 10 (3), p. 30
RainCity Housing (RCH) wanted to fill an important housing gap in the City of Vancouver for those struggling with mental health and addiction issues—specifically, to provide a place where they could live a life free of alcohol and drugs. This resulted in the Fraser Street Concurrent Disorders Transitional Housing program.
Generally, supported housing is either addictions or mental health, but not both. On August 1, 2007, however, the first concurrent disorders housing facility in Canada officially opened its doors. The building has 30 self-contained single-occupancy units and is staffed 24/7.
Most RCH sites are in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), but this program but is intentionally located outside of the DTES. We are aware that the surrounding environment can influence behaviour. We also think it’s important that people experience different types of communities.
Our program is transitional, which means that folks stay with us for 18 to 24 months before moving on to other types of housing. Typically, the next move for our tenants is permanent housing, often in BC Housing accommodation.
In keeping with RainCity’s harm reduction approach to services, the Fraser Street Program’s approach, in terms of abstinence, means that we work with individuals on a case-by-case basis. Should there be a slip or relapse, our goal is to allow the individual to maintain housing while addressing their addiction and mental health issues. We offer supports and allow time for treatment. The supports provided vary depending on what the individual is struggling with, and we allow for a wide range of therapies, from the conventional to the not so conventional.
Everyone’s care plan or service plan is going to look different. If it’s for addiction, we would assist in setting up counselling, residential treatment, detox or daytox, to name only a few possible services. If it’s for mental health issues, we would assist the tenant in managing symptoms. This could include anything from setting up doctor appointments and hospital stays, to monitoring medication changes.
Meeting neighbourhood concerns head on
Prior to the doors opening, we received many emails and phone calls from residents in the neighbourhood criticizing this type of program showing up in their community. This happened in response to posting a sign on the site—as required by the City—which stated the purpose of the building.
Generally, folks were concerned about this population moving into their neighbourhood, as they believed it would increase criminal activity, sex trade work and drug use. Some went so far as to say, “Not in our backyard!”
Our task at RainCity Housing was to allay their many concerns prior to opening, which was a tall order. We listened to people’s thoughts, worries and concerns. Some of the negative comments we received were made anonymously, so it was hard to have a back-and-forth conversation with the source. But we held public town hall meetings, which were essentially open mic sessions where anyone could stand up and share their concerns.
We also held a number of community consultations to provide education. Concerned neighbours were informed that the housing would serve tenants who want to live a clean and sober life while actively working on their mental health concerns. These tenants would also have mental health and addictions supports on top of the housing support.
Aside from the community consultations, there were two other crucial pieces put into place to address the community’s concerns. One, a new staff position called a Community Integration Support Worker (CISW) was created. The CISW was, and still is, proactive in educating the community about the people who live at Fraser Street Housing. This is done through dialogue with neighbours and through encouraging our tenants to take part in community activities. Our tenants have participated in block parties, community gardening and setting up a clean-neighbourhood program.
The other crucial piece was setting up a Community Association Committee (CAC), which still meets twice a year (the meetings were monthly in the beginning). The CAC is made up of representatives from the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), the local high school, the business association for the area and nearby residents, as well as the local community police liaison, the manager and a Fraser Street Housing tenant.
Sharing with community—a big part of success
Fraser Street has had its doors open for seven years now. There are many stories and amazing outcomes that show concerns from neighbours about having this kind of program in their neighbourhood have been dispelled.
A popular story we like to share with service providers is about our one-year anniversary barbecue. We invited as many people as we could to the barbecue in hopes of ‘breaking bread’ and sharing our successes. We invited people from our surrounding neighbourhood, CAC members, Fraser Street staff, other RCH program staff, VCH officials and, of course, the tenants. Our very large back patio and our first floor were packed with hungry, smiling faces as well as some cautious ones.
Our staff and tenants recall with joy and amusement how many of the guests mistook staff for tenants and tenants for staff. This reminded us of what we knew already: that someone struggling with mental health and addictions looks like any one of us—there isn’t actually a profile or stereotype. The barbecue was such a success that a community member asked one of our tenants to help with her yard work. We had already become a part of our community’s ‘backyard’!
Another story is one of giving back. A Fraser Street Housing staff member came up with the idea of tenants preparing and serving meals for people who are struggling in the Downtown Eastside. This idea picked up like wildfire among our tenants and the project lasted for about six months on a bi-weekly basis. At its peak, 10 of our tenants were involved in serving meals to folks in the DTES.
Tenants told us afterward that it meant a lot for them to be in a stable enough place in their lives that they could offer support to someone else in need. Many of our tenants have come from living in the DTES in SROs or on the streets, so no one missed the significance that the meals they were providing would have had for them in the not-so-distant past.
The tenants gave back and went beyond, with other initiatives like collecting shoes and clothing to hand out to those in need. The tenants did this all on their own—one community pulling together to help another community.
Now welcomed in the neighbourhood
The initial community backlash is no longer an issue. We have community members who tell us they’re happy we’re located here as there’s more neighbourhood security with our outdoor cameras and 24/7 staff. And the building is much better than the empty parking lot that was here before.
I think one of the important lessons we learned is that having a large town hall meeting with an open mic is not the most effective way to facilitate productive dialogue. Because it was so large, it wasn’t conducive to addressing the many topics that were brought to our attention. It also didn’t allow for personal interaction.
We have since found that it is much more helpful to have meaningful dialogue early on with community members in a more intimate setting. This is easier to manage in terms of topics and much more personable.
It’s also worth noting that the Community Association Committee was very skeptical and somewhat critical of our program in the beginning. CAC members have since had a chance to get to know the program, the building, the staff and the tenants, and now they are strong advocates, regularly inviting our tenants to community events.
Through dialogue, understanding and acceptance, Fraser Street Concurrent Disorders Transitional Housing has become a part of its neighbourhood community. We no longer hear, “Not in my backyard!” Now we hear, “Please stay in our community!”