Here is how Housing First works

This is the second post in our Housing and Health series, where we explore the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society’s housing support options, funded by United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island and the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada's Homelessness Strategy. In this series, we’ll look at the connection between housing and health, and show that many approaches are needed to reach an end to homelessness. In our first post, we explored Nanaimo's new rent bank, which helps people to remain housed when they can't pay a bill. This time, we're looking at Housing First.

Day-to-night-apartments-buildingWEBSIZE.jpgIn general, people want to be healthy.  

That’s what Andrew Ferguson believes. 

He’s the housing manager with the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society’s Housing First program. 

And he sees that belief confirmed all the time. Sometimes the victories are small – a client keeps their fridge stocked and eats meals regularly. Other times, the victories are life-changing – a client decides they are ready to go to therapy and start to get better. 

But a key element to all of this is that the client has to make these decisions for themselves. They have to.  Because, ultimately, they have to be committed to maintaining their own health, because no one else is going to do it for them. They have to own it. Their health should be their victory. 

Andrew’s job is to give them the best chance at being victorious. 

That means having a home. 

The United Way-funded Housing First program at the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society, works with landlords, property management groups, even people with a basement for rent, to find their clients a home. This is referred to as scattered site housing, and it can be a better fit for some people, says Andrew. 

In this model, there are more choices when it comes to what services you want to live near to, or what area of town. And there can be less stigma, as your neighbours know you only as another neighbour, not necessarily someone who needs help. 

Once clients go through a screening process and appropriate housing is found, the Housing First program’s job is to provide support to their client and the landlord, making sure rent is paid on time, helping to resolve any disputes, and helping the client accomplish their health goals. 

Accomplishing those goals can take time. 

“It’s not always [the case that] somebody goes into housing and then 10 days later they are ready to address everything that’s gone on in their lives, because it can be a lot,” says Andrew. 

But, no matter the time it takes, people do choose to change their lives and get healthy. 

Here is one of those victories: 

“I work with someone who I think had been homeless for about three years when I met them, and drank every day, often to excess,” says Andrew. 

“They didn’t have difficulties finding housing, but they had difficulties maintaining their housing. They had difficulties with neighbours. They would stay at a place for a month, then get evicted.” 

Once entering the Housing First program, they stayed housed for a year – their longest stretch of continuous housing in the past four years, says Andrew. But they continued to drink. Until they decided they needed to make a change. 

“They had been hospitalized for a fall that had happened when they were intoxicated,” says Andrew. “They were able to go home, and then a couple days later, they wanted to go to detox and they wanted to go to treatment.” 

The Housing First program helped them do that. “They were able to go straight from detox to a treatment facility. We were able to continue paying their rent, the three months that they were in treatment. 

“When they left treatment, they came back home, and they started going to meetings. They started to access a substance use counsellor. With us helping to direct them where to go and who to call, they were able to build a support network that helped them maintain their sobriety.” 

“It took them a year in housing before they were ready to tackle that,” says Andrew. But now, the person is working part time year-round (rather than seasonally, which had allowed them to maintain their drinking). They’ve also recognized the part that early childhood trauma has played in their substance abuse. And they have chosen to address that, too. 

“They were able to say, ‘I also want to and need to work on this, so that I don’t relapse’,” says Andrew. 

Having a stable home to go back to throughout all that work is critical, Andrew says.  

If, once leaving detox or treatment, you have to return to couch-surfing or living on the street where the people around you are using substances, “remaining sober is infinitely more difficult.” 

So first comes housing.  

But with it is a support system that is ready to help as soon as the person asks for it. The key is to provide an environment where the person feels they are able to address their health problems – where getting healthy can be their choice, and their victory. 

United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island supports this program by directing funds from the federal government’s Reaching Home program.  

However, Housing First programs like this one are just one option. Support services like the John Howard Society provide various kinds of housing and health support programs, providing people with different options so that they can find the help they feel will work best for them. 

In the next post in our Housing and Health series, we will look at the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society’s Supportive Recovery Housing program, which United Way CNVI also supports. In that program, clients choose to live in a group setting where abstinence is required.