Innovative Efforts Helping People Heal
Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) is a frontline concern in our city; with close to one thousand new units desperately needed. Political backing and funding are lining up at all three levels of government to fill this critical gap in our response to prevent and end homelessness. These facilities are meaningful and effective solutions; provide safe and supportive community for people carrying some of the most difficult and complex burdens; barriers that continually jeopardize their health and their ability to retain work and housing. For these folks, a PSH facility is a space to find healing, hope and community.
But as efforts ramp up to build these facilities, questions abound: What might this look like? How will it fit into the local neighbourhood? What will be the impact be on the local community?
Today’s PSH story feature is Westwood Manor; located in the Westwood community, east of the old municipal airport. A few years ago, the Mustard Seed purchased and renovated a small ageing apartment building in the Westwood Community. It was fairly run down, and an eyesore in this mature neighbourhood. Today, this newly renovated facility is home and supportive community for twenty people with a range of complex needs, including drug and alcohol addictions, trauma and mental health barriers like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and chronic depression.
Westwood Manor is rated as a fairly high acuity PSH. That means they have some higher needs folks living there. As with all PSH, supports are located on-site; including 24-hour staffing. Westwood Manor is also a harm-reduction facility, which means that a person’s housing is not dependent on maintaining their sobriety or abstinence. Tenants have access to sterilized needles and other supplies that will allow them to use safely.
Mustard Seed owns the building, but staffing ratios and operating dollars come from Homeward Trust, with people referred through the Coordinated Access System; that links all such efforts across Edmonton.
A priority in this facility is the creation of intentional community for their residents; not only within the facility but in the local neighbourhood as well. The lack of community and healthy relationship has long been recognized as a root cause of both addiction and mental health challenges. Landon Hildebrand, the facility manager notes that they have seen exciting change already, with significant health improvements. He says, “Joy, community, attachment…when we provide these things, the addictions have less appeal.””
He notes that mental health concerns are present in every community, but are more raw and hyper-realized in the most vulnerable. The ability to hide it is just not there.
Their efforts at providing community include building a relationship with local neighbours. Westwood staff approached the Westwood Community League to learn about getting more involved, and they were welcomed with open arms. The Community League provided them with a family membership to cover all their residents, and now they are able to participate as volunteers and as full members in community league gatherings.
Westwood Manor staff also supported the creation of a resident’s committee (much like a condo board) that had authority to consider and respond to concerns. Staff agreed to take all new policy or rule changes to this committee for their consideration. This new way of doing things changed how residents related to staff and how they thought about their home. It prompted a sense of ownership and responsibility in the facility; prompting greater care for the space, the grounds, and each other. They want their home to be a warm, safe, and healthy environment. Residents in this kind of leadership role have even helped resolve interpersonal conflicts. It’s been a win, win, win for everyone! Landon credits the success of this kind of approach as a direct counter to the myth that people in PSH can’t make good decisions. “The more authority and leadership we give to our folks, the better they do.”
Westwood’s community-building efforts are a little tricky on some fronts, particularly as they have very little in the way of gathering space to hang out together. When a suite is empty, the staff will often transform it into a place to hang out, and the office is one place people stop in to chat constantly. They could also use a secure space where they can have those private and secure conversations, coaching, training, and supports.
But things get much easier in the summer, when they can host outdoor BBQs and feasts, and invite the neighbours. They also plan to start a community garden this coming year that they hope will promote natural connection between residents and local neighbours.
Is their approach successful? Landon shares the story of one gentleman whose almost daily ritual was being out panhandling for long hours, stuck in alcohol and substances. He would get dropped off by EPS almost daily and carried back to his unit. Now he is there at 3:00 everyday to hang out with the staff during shift change; so he can chat with both those going out and those coming in. He’s also working to start a local snow shovelling business, and because he is a community league member is able to share some of his posters on the local bulletin board and in the community hall.
Certainly not everyone succeeds, and evictions happen occasionally. Concerns around safety and difficult behaviors are usually the reason someone has to be removed. Unfortunately, there are not many places for people to go if they are evicted. The shortage of PSH in Edmonton means that few facilities are available and equipped to manage and care for people with more difficult behaviors.
Westwood Manor’s story illustrates the value and effectiveness of Permanent Supportive Housing as a meaningful and effective solution. She provides a place of healing, home, safety and stability for some of our most vulnerable people. And the efforts by her residents and staff are a lesson in the powerful need we all have for a community where we participate and can take responsibility in shaping.
Based on an Interview with Landon Hildebrand, A Registered Psychologist, Serving as Director of Housing and Clinic development.