We’re all familiar with door-to-door support programs like Meals on Wheels, providing food security to people with mobility challenges. It turns out a similar approach is working for people coming off the street into housing. Let me introduce you to Housing First!
Housing First is a philosophy. It is a philosophy that’s part of Edmonton’s and Alberta’s respective Plans to End Homelessness. If you want someone to succeed at being housed, you need to give them the tools to remove the barriers they face. The first step is to provide housing, and then you can address life issues which may have led to homelessness in the first place.
But Housing First is also a program. It is a network of resources, programs and strategies that has taken root here in Edmonton to provide both housing and necessary supports to people in crisis. The basic thrust of the program is this: Identify a person’s needs. Provide them with appropriate housing. Then provide support workers to help them keep their housing, settle in, and support them in the work of moving forward. Since 2009, Homeward Trust, which oversees the Housing First program here in Edmonton has housed and supported 6,000 people.
How a person is housed depends on their needs. Most in the Housing First program are placed in market rental housing, which could be anywhere in the city. But as you will see in the chart below, not everyone needs the same level of support or care. So the program works to provide appropriate home and care tailored to each individual.
The range of housing and supports
|Rapid Rehousing (RR)
||Intensive Case Management (ICM)
||Assertive Community Treatment (ACT)
||Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH)
||Able to access clinical supports on their own.
||Need in-home visits.
Chronic mental illness &/or addictions
|On-site supports provided around the clock
|Housing First team
||Housing First team
||Housing First team and visits from professional support like Occupational therapist, LPN, RN, Psychiatry
||Range of supports depending on population. Can include: food, healthcare, OT, LPN, RN, Recreational programs
|Usually in Market Housing
||Usually in Market Housing
||Often in Market Housing
||Supportive Living Facility
What kind of barriers do people generally face?
In addition to experiencing homelessness, people who can be served by a Housing First program are facing a combination of barriers:
- Mental Health: ie. major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia
- Addictions: ie. alcohol, gambling, drugs
- Broken relationships or loss: ie. Grieving the loss of a child, spouse, or parent or a broken marriage.
- Mistakes in their past that have damaged their credit, or rental history, or resulted in a criminal conviction.
- Trauma: ie. from violence or abusive relationships, from living on the street, as veterans of police or military, or intergenerational trauma from residential schools. Trauma is common to almost everyone coming into Housing First.
What does a Housing First team generally do?
Once a person has been assessed and Housing First is found to be the appropriate intervention, they are provided with a Housing First team. This team helps them find a place, get settled, and supports them as they move forward. The team will go with them to look at different apartments, and help get everything arranged; be there for moving day; take them to Find (Homeward Trust’s initiative that provides people moving out of homelessness through Housing First with free furnishings) to get set up with initial furniture, start-up food, cleaning supplies, basic tools.
Then depending on what a person needs, members of the team will visit regularly. It could be as many as two day a week for the first few months.
How does Housing First help people move forward?
From beginning to end, every part of this program is voluntary. It is client-centred with self determination of the client, key. The moment you walk into someone’s living room and tell them what to do, you create a wall: usually impenetrable. But if you ask someone what they need to move forward, they are going to know. The Housing First team works with the person to make a plan and connect with appropriate resources.
The program works to help overcome barriers, but the choices of participants must be honoured. The team must give someone the dignity of failure: to make their own decisions and to learn from those decisions.
What kind of challenges do people face?
- Negative messages. As participants are welcomed into the program, they receive a lot of messages from the mainstream: suggesting that they are not deserving of housing because they haven’t worked for it, or judging them for their addictions.
- It’s a mountain! When people first move in, things go really well. Then the hard work begins of confronting barriers; many of which are very, very difficult. There can be a lot of stumbling. “The Housing First worker has to be a guide through the hard work and show the payoff at the end. But what is amazing is how strong some folks are! The trauma can be so heavy, but folks learn so much and connect in a finite amount of time. It is like climbing a mountain, but they do it and it is amazing!” says Renee Iverson
- Building a new network of support. When someone is moving from a life that’s entrenched on the streets into the life of a housed person, there’s a change with the way someone views community. It can be a huge task rebuilding a positive community of support. For example, Welcome Home is a program designed to address this challenge by matching a team of volunteers with a participant to go for walks, share a meal, go bowling, and to be there as a friend. Click here for more information on how to volunteer https://www.cssalberta.ca/Our-Ministries/Welcome-Home
How does a person apply for Housing First?
Coordinated Access is centralized intake. People can call or visit Homeward Trust’s partnering agencies. There is “no wrong door” approach to what agency they can visit. Most people who experience homelessness in Edmonton will never require a Housing First intervention. For those that do, centralized intake will be able to route them to the appropriate Housing First teams.
Here is a link to a page on CRIHI’s website with some key contact numbers including access to Housing First: http://wp.me/P20ewB-o6
Article by Mike Van Boom, based on an interview with Renee Iverson from Homeward Trust