Iris Court’s journey into existence was not an easy one. Their initial effort to set up in the McCauley community was rebuffed as local neighbours, objecting to an already heavy concentration of services and social housing in their community, took the development to court to stop it.
But lessons were learned from that experience, particularly on the need for open and up-front consultation. In McCauley, residents learned about the project as the groundbreaking ceremony was being celebrated. When Iris Court was seeking a home in Bonnie Doon, they chose to proceed very differently.
Rubyann Rice, Executive Director for the Schizophrenia Society describes the excitement they had to find an ideal property available with a 21 suite lodge and convent home to the Sisters of Assumption. The board quickly came on side to pursue this location, and the nuns received their offer to purchase warmly. Throughout the process, the nuns were in prayer for their effort to succeed.
On the consultation front, they immediately began connection with the Bonnie Doon Community League to keep them informed of their intentions. The facility needed rezoning to classify as a group home, and so, as required, they also sent out letters to a two blocks radius. Councillor Ben Henderson helped greatly with connection and counsel on what was working well and went with them into some conversations.
The Society also worked hard to be transparent with their plans and movements. Letters of invite to meetings at Iris Court went out to neighbours to two conversations hosted in the dining room. They asked people to submit questions ahead of time, and to help them host these questions they invited people to speak to the answers. A psychiatrist (serving on the Society’s board) spoke to the services needed. They also had one of the clients speak to his journey and challenge.
Rubyann notes that having the client speak helped change the perception. It illustrated the gap between living in a hospital and in a apartment, and the need for supported living. In his story, they met someone living with schizophrenia. The fact that his parents were both doctors illustrated that this can happen to anyone. But Rubyann highlighted that the client they chose was someone who was strong enough to speak and handle the negative language that they knew might arise.
These conversations were far from easy, and they certainly did face some hostility. But the society patiently worked through people’s questions, and as people became more informed about schizophrenia and mental illness, and received reasonable answers to their questions, that hostility diminished significantly.
Of continuing help to the relationship with the local community is the presence of a Good Neighbour’s Agreement. With the help of Cllr Henderson, they framed this document to share their commitment to resolving concerns in the neighbourhood. They also chose to make it a living document, so it can be altered or updated in the future if needed. A phone number is posted out front of the building in case people have any concerns.
The whole process took about eight months, but at the end of it no community members came out to speak against the rezoning; even with an invitation. One community member even said, “We should have housing for vulnerable people in every community.” And today, the relationship with the local community is very positive, because of the efforts to build relationship and connection.
- Last year, the Community league swung by to pick up a few tenants for the Christmas party.
- Local churches have also been supportive, with a local Baptist church giving pumpkins every fall. Some tenants would go to service there.
- They also have local neighbours come and volunteer from time to time and drop off donations of books and CDs.
The Schizophrenia Society’s efforts at consultation with the local neighbours were rewarded, and today Iris Court has found a wonderful home in the Bonnie Doon Community.
Article by Mike Van Boom, based on an interview with RubyAnn Rice, Executive Director of the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta