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A federal experiment proves that providing housing and services helps the most marginalized of the homeless stay housed. Now what?

March 1st, 2013 · 13 Comments

The Bosman Hotel has, for the last three years, essentially provided a mini-Riverview ward for those who need it in the middle of the downtown. It worked so well that even downtown business groups are worried about what will happen if it is simply shut down with no reasonable alternative for the most troubled of the residents.

Here’s the latest on where it stands, as the province and Ottawa wrestle over who should provide what money to keep something like that model going.

FRANCES BULA

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

Published

Last updated

 

About 100 formerly homeless people in Vancouver, along with many support staff, are wondering what is going to happen to them when a federally funded program officially ends March 31.

The $110-million, five-city experiment called At Home/Chez Soi, was funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada to study the most effective strategies for ending homelessness. Ontario recently announced it will put in $4-million to maintain the program launched three years ago, but B.C. is still tussling with Ottawa about what will happen here.

“I’m hoping the government or the community will band together to get the essentials up and running,” one of those residents, 46-year-old Nicholas Wennington, said.

“I would think what’s going to happen for some of them is they’re going to fall through the cracks again.”

Mr. Wennington, a former concert stagehand, lives at the Bosman, a downtown former travellers’ hotel that was converted three years ago to a small rehab centre and home for people who had been living on the street.

The Bosman is part of the program that’s ending on March 31.

The federal government has provided small amounts of money to the programs in each province where it was operating to “transition.”

That transition money – confirmed at the last minute before the building had to be given up – will pay for the lease, maintenance and utilities at the Bosman for one more year, with enough money to maintain one staff position around the clock, seven days a week.

That’s nowhere near the kind of support the Bosman has now, where there are social workers, nurses, visiting doctors and psychiatrists, and a three-meals-a-day food program.

While several of the residents, like Mr. Wennington, are high-functioning and calm, some are not. For a handful of residents, ambulance attendants will come in only with a police escort. Doctors who now work with the program have indicated they are nervous about visiting if there aren’t enough other staff present.

But it is unclear who is going to be willing to pay the approximately $1-million needed for that kind of staffing for the next year or for the whole operation as of March 31, 2014.

Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing officials are working to see which of the residents could move into existing social housing elsewhere.

But that is not going to work for everyone. About half have problems that are too serious for such low-support housing.

“There’s nowhere for them to go,” says Liz Evans, a director at PHS, the organization that has been managing the Bosman. PHS has been operating housing for the most difficult to house for 20 years.

While $2-million a year might look expensive to some, she said, “it’s less than a bed in a mental-health facility” for those residents.

But no one is stepping up to provide that money, in spite of the program’s confirmed success in improving the residents’ health and housing.

The federal mental-health commission says it is not the commission’s job to run long-term programs.

“This will be the best research in the world around the importance of providing housing first,” said Catharine Hume, the director of the At Home/Chez Soi program. “What we were trying to do was develop information to influence policy. It really is a provincial decision now how to deliver services.”

Ontario’s Health Minister announced Feb. 12 that the province would put $4-million into new rent supplements and mental-health supports to continue the programs the Mental Health Commission had started.

But B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman says the federal government was warned before the experiment started that the province didn’t want a project that was funded for three years and then abandoned.

“I’ve said, ‘If you want to invest, make sure you keep the program.’ ” He’s wrestling to get the federal government to commit more.

In the meantime, it’s unclear what B.C. is prepared to do to keep the Bosman program the same.

For Mr. Wennington, who has HIV and hepatitis C, is plagued by recurring fevers no one has been able to diagnose, who suffers from depression and is a recovered drug user, that’s all unnerving.

“We’re going to lose a lot of the essentials, I think. We’re going to lose a lot of services.”

 

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13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bill Lee // Mar 3, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    If no money, then a hundred severely troubled people out on the street, maybe in the DTES, maybe elsewhere than Granville and Helmcken.

    This is cheap to establish, test, and work a programme to get people off the street, stable enough and probably out leaving room for the next 50, 100 etc.

    And the demographic bulge of these older peoples will mean there will be more on Vancouver streets with only the police to watch a few, usually too late.

    Not a good future. And some people we know may be in this dire situation in the future.

  • 2 Lewis N. Villegas // Mar 4, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Mini-Riverview sounds like a very good option.

    Let’s remember that the homelessness problem = mental illness on the street. Not what decent folk should want to do.

    Here are estimates of the cost per year per person for housing alternatives:

    $80,000 Federal Incarceration.

    $70,000 Provincial Incarceration.

    $55,000 Street Homeless (cost to the system: “Housing and Homeless Strategy,” City of Vancouver, 2011).

    $45,000 Housed with supports.

  • 3 Dan Cooper // Mar 4, 2013 at 9:38 am

    This program has been proven repeatedly in various US states/cities: Since we have as a society (partly because they had problems, but largely for money reasons) essentially decided we are no longer going to have mental hospitals and other such institutions, it is often far cheaper to pay for an individual apartment for a severely mentally ill and/or addicted and/orr physically fragile person and for a social worker or nurse to literally follow them around and support them every waking hour, than to be constantly paying huge bills to shuffle them in and out of the emergency room and jail cells every day or two. Hospital and ambulance bills especially add up (and this is not about Canadian Medicare; examples of this program come from for example Los Vegas, where the people in question are generally just uninsured).

    So, the question: penny wise and pound foolish, or go ahead and make this program permanent?

  • 4 Dan Cooper // Mar 4, 2013 at 9:55 am

    And it’s worth mentioning, of course, money aside the people in question are a heck of a lot healthier and more stable than if they are just thrown out into the streets (the realistic alternative) which – to me at least – has a lot of intrinsic value. And for many people, providing housing without supports is simply a quick route to eviction and homelessness. One of my first jobs after university was in an SRO in another city, and I will never forget one fellow who was moved there straight from the (closing) state mental hospital. Nicest, most gentle man you’ve ever met but screamed at the top of his lungs literally every moment someone was not sitting with him. No supports provided (or maybe there was some on call therapist/psychiatrist somewhere during the day but nothing was said to us about it and there was certainly nothing at night), and thus he was homeless within two days.

  • 5 Paul Tolnai // Mar 4, 2013 at 11:15 am

    As a neighbour of the Bosman project, I’d like to give my perspective. I’ll leave the bigger picture debate to others who are much better read on the topic than myself. I’m the President of a strata council of a building nearby the project.

    When the Bosman was first converted we saw a rash of property crime in our building (theft from vehicle and even theft from townhomes). The problem became so acute we hired extra security and got creative with how we managed the limited amount of security time we have.

    The move paid off and we did finally help the police bust one person who had a connection to the Bosman. Ever since that person was busted, crime in our building basically disappeared.

    My take-away from this is that it appears the project can peacefully coexist in an urban setting, however our residents paid thousands of dollars protecting ourselves during the change, not to mention the actual losses from the thefts. Many of the residents (espy those victimized) hold a grudge against the project. I doubt there will be anything we can do to fix those perceptions.

    I worry if the Bosman is closed, we could see another spike in crime, as it seems that crime moves around every time one of these projects opens or closes.

    I think, moving forward, special attention needs to be paid to the area where these projects are being opened. Perhaps require, for the first year or two, added security to the standard staffing compliment of the project. That security should work closely with neighbouring buildings to mitigate the risks associated with a new project like this.

    The added security can then be weened away.

  • 6 Lewis N. Villegas // Mar 4, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    “… our residents paid thousands of dollars protecting ourselves during the change, not to mention the actual losses from the thefts.”

    Paul Tolnai 5

    I know another Council Chair reporting a similar experience in their building. In their case a non-profit owned three suites in the building and rented them out at a subsidized rate to people with special needs.

    The building experienced the usual rash of property crime. Cars were broken into on a regular basis, riffled through for valuables left behind, lose change and garage door transmitters. The lockers were useless for storing anything but junk. And the mailboxes were often a target… Welcome to urban living!

    Then, one of the non-profit clients was evicted. Personal belongings were taken out and left on the front lawn for a month or more.

    The unexpected result? Property theft disappeared at the building. Council Chair pointed out that the resident was most likely not the culprit Rather, visitors to the suite are the ones suspected.

    So, I agree with Paul Tolnai, ‘housing with supports’ needs to be understood in a comprehensive way. Especially as we look to build these kinds of homes not just in the DTES, Downtown, and Mount Pleasant, but everywhere in our city and province.

  • 7 Raingurl // Mar 5, 2013 at 8:30 am

    I used to live close to a half way house. I was a little nervous because my daughter was only 5 at the time. Then one day she and her friend (both 6 by then) DISAPPEARED from the backyard! We didn’t find them at the half way house but the guy next door sure had some ‘splaining to do. The girls knocked on his door because that’s where a friend used to live. My moral is you can’t even trust your neighbours and I’ve never judged (or mis judged) anyone since.

  • 8 Bill McCreery // Mar 5, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Successive Provincial Government’s (starting with Bill Bennet + another short Socred, Mike Harcourt, Bill Van Der Zalm, Glen Clark and Ujjal Dosanjh created the present day shame in the DTES, Boseman and the like. Bill Bennett promised that when patients were released from the downsizing of River View they would be provided supportive housing in the communities of their choice. That’s never happened. To their credit the Gordon Campbell Government was the 1st to step up to the plate to start to rectify that problem 20+ years too late.

    As well, when there are patients with such uncontrolled violent tendencies that medical staff require protective support it is patently obvious that such people cannot reasonably be expected to coexist on their own. The Provincial Government has a responsibility and should step up to the plate.

    The correlation between supportive housing and stabilized at risk persons has been known since Bennett announced his unfulfilled intentions in the early 80’s. It appears the Federal short term experiment has been in part intended to embarrass them into doing so.

  • 9 Richard // Mar 5, 2013 at 11:38 am

    @Bill

    Well said. With the provincial campaign underway, people need to put pressure on candidates to finally address this.

    Unfortunately, Campbell’s priority was tax cuts that have failed to produce the economic gains promised. These cuts reduced the capacity of the province to address these and other issues.

  • 10 Raingurl // Mar 5, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    I’M FOR BARRETT! Oh, sorry, I thought it was the seventies for a second there…………..( I heard Bennett’s name mentioned – SHUDDERING)

    Thanks Bill #8. Well said *clapping*

  • 11 F.H.Leghorn // Mar 5, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    The list of past politicians is beside the point. Like all politicians they serve the interests of those who donate, organize or vote. The homeless don’t do any of those things. The general public is more interested in multi-billion dollar road improvements and lower taxes and, if the government is handing out freebies, they want to be first in line.
    Expecting politicians to do the right thing just because is naive. They have no shame and their concern with their fellow citizens is just talk.

  • 12 Richard // Mar 5, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    @Foggy

    Good point.

    The other problem is that people that that really care about these issues are not very strategic and do things like protest against restaurants unstead of keeping the pressure on the province and the Feds.

  • 13 teririch // Mar 6, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    PautT. #5

    I worked a block away from the Bosman and used to walk by it on my way home. When it first opened, I saw the drug dealing that took place directly across the street from it – at the alley by the sandwich shop.

    A guy on a bike would rideup, the exchange was made and then the buyer scurried back to the Bosman. It was very sad as the one day a young woman was with an older woman and you could tell she was not ‘mentally’ there. She almost got hit by a car trying to cross the street during rush traffic – following the older woman who dodged back to get buzzed back into the Bosman.

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