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Alcohol & Other Drugs

The Branch

Piloting innovative, safe, supported, temporary bridge-to-housing in Kamloops

Natika Bock

Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (4), pp. 29-31

The Branch, a unique temporary housing project in Kamloops, BC, provides a bridge-to-housing opportunity for community members who are waiting for the construction of two supported housing complexes, one of which is complete and the other slated for completion in the fall of 2019.

The Branch accommodates 36 adult residents, is pet-friendly and is open to all genders and sexual orientations. It is a culturally safe space for urban Indigenous peoples (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community. The Branch is also a registered overdose prevention site with an injection room where residents can use intravenously with clean supplies, in private and without stigma. The intention of The Branch is to provide a smooth transition for folks out of homelessness while they await the new, permanent modular housing developments. Once that transition has been made, The Branch will close.

The word "branch" has many meanings, some of which are reflected in the philosophy of The Branch environment. Just like a branch on a tree, The Branch is supported by a sturdy core—a trunk—that derives its strength from the passion of the people who participate in the program, sharing their experiences and perspectives. And just like the branch of a tree draws its nourishment from its roots, much of the strength of our residents and The Branch's environment and programs is rooted in our respect for our diverse traditional, social and cultural roots. The metaphor of the branch also reflects our affection for our neighbourhood, as many of the streets in our catchment are named after trees.

Ultimately, just like the branch of a tree is part of something larger than itself, The Branch is certainly part of something larger: it is a unique bridgeto- housing program that helps close a subtle but important gap in services related to our local affordable housing continuum. The Branch is where folks exiting homelessness settle into a warm, safe space until permanent modular units are built and ready for occupancy.

Part of something larger

In Kamloops, Emerald Centre (also operated by the Canadian Mental Health Association) is available for folks who are homeless on a first-come, first-serve basis. There is a bed-check at 9:30 p.m., and if someone isn't there, the bed is given to the next person.

Emerald Centre is the first point of contact for folks who are exiting homelessness. There, they are assigned a case manager and complete the vulnerability assessment tool, a questionnaire to assess their risk for homelessness, among other things. The average stay for folks at the shelter is 10 days; if they meet the criteria for supportive housing, they are triaged to The Branch.

The aim of The Branch is to support life skills focused on housing retention, including management of personal items, care of personal space and autonomy. As well, folks are connected to income assistance and have damage deposits so that they are set up for success when they move into permanent housing.

The Branch program includes other innovations as well. Our staffing model includes dedicated and talented Canadian Mental Health Association supportive 24-hour housing staff and voluntary services from community partners. There are two dedicated spaces for Interior Health street nurses and other professional teams, including the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, Community Living BC, mental health and substance use clinicians, the SHOP Program (Social and Health Options for Persons in Sex Work) and street outreach from ASK Wellness Society. Two local restaurants have stepped up to provide food services for residents, and these eateries are our next-door neighbours.

These important connections speak to our commitment to nurture community pride and safety, and support the local economy. We are good neighbours and The Branch is an outstanding example of a neighbourhood coming together to meet our specific needs.

Assessing eligibility

To be eligible for The Branch and prioritized for permanent housing, all applicants must complete the BC Housing vulnerability assessment tool (VAT). Once a month, local housing representatives come together as a coordinated access team to determine where folks should be housed based on their VAT score and the level of supports available.

The VAT was developed by the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle, Washington. A Canadian version was developed by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness in 2016. BC Housing uses the VAT as a tool to determine housing services eligibility for adults experiencing homelessness.

The VAT assesses 10 domains, including an individual's survival skills, health and medical risks, communication skills and orientation and organization capacities. Together, these individual domain scores give service providers an idea of how to best support an individual and better determine how to provide the most focused support for each person.

Creating responsive communities

In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, our "reconcilACTION" at The Branch is to ensure that the now well-documented over-representation of Indigenous peoples in precarious housing situations is reflected accurately in national homeless statistics.

Our coordinated access team purposefully designated 40% of The Branch to house Indigenous residents. During the staff orientation process, all Branch staff members are given Jesse Thistle's excellent Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada1 as part of their cultural safety and competency training package. As a non-Indigenous housing provider, The Branch is wholly dedicated to acknowledging and practising appropriate traditional protocols to honour the people we serve and the land on which we do our good work.

The ultimate goal of The Branch is to create a living space where folks have a sense of belonging. Creating a home environment where folks see the best of themselves reflected by others and the community—where they can relax, stabilize, get well and take advantage of services readily accessible to them— takes courage, creativity, innovation and inclusion. Without prompting, residents formed an advisory committee that regularly brings ideas and concerns to Branch staff. Staff members facilitate and record these regular meetings, listening openly and closely in order to implement new directions in policy and process.

For example, in response to the advisory committee's recommendation, we implemented a safe smoking area on-site for folks who use illicit substances by smoking. This transparency, coupled with the implementation of safety measure to address the change in policy, has been remarkably successful. We've had only two medical emergencies, and because of our change in practice, these emergencies received quick, caring response and had successful outcomes.

The residents are not only our main stakeholders; they are the undisputed experts. As we say often at The Branch and in all social services sectors, "Nothing about us without us."

A true revolution in our housing situation will start only with a shift in culture. Current conversations about homelessness need to move away from the popular myth of folks as lazy and unmotivated and towards a narrative that includes room for a discussion of childhood trauma and other forms of abuse common in the population that is currently homeless or at risk for homelessness.2 "To house or not to house" is not a debate: it is a wholly unethical question. Housing is a human right. As a society, we need to ensure that everyone has the capacity and the ability to exercise that right.

The symbol of the branch is significant in other ways as well. We often think of a branch as a peace offering or as a lifeline. The Branch is both of these, helping to respond to the housing crisis by extending a lifeline to those who need it, and demonstrating— along with its partners—peaceful, innovative solutions to homelessness.

For more information on The Branch and its programs, please visit our website: kamloops.cmha.bc.ca.

 
About the author

Natika is the Supportive Housing Manager at The Branch, Canadian Mental Health Association – Kamloops. She is Co-chair of the HomeFree Housing & Supports Committee, a previous member of the provincial Advisory Forum on Poverty Reduction and the mom of a young, spirited daughter—a proud Huu-ay-aht Citizen and advocate in training

This article was written on the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Territory within the unceded traditional lands of the Secwepemc Nation

Footnotes:
  1. Thistle, J. (2017.) Indigenous definition of homelessness in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.
  2. Maté, G. (2008). In the realm of hungry ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

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