Learning to live housed, without using
This is the third post in our Housing and Health series, where we explore the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society’s supportive housing 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.
When we looked at the United Way-funded Nanaimo Region John Howard Society’s Housing First program, we saw that it helps people to find housing and to remain housed in normal apartments all over the city, by supporting the relationship between resident and landlord. In that program, residents address substance use issues when they are ready.
In this post, we’re looking at the society’s Vancouver Island Therapeutic Community Supportive Recovery Housing, or VITC. There, residents choose to be a part of a community in a designated building where, together, they address their substance use issues in a program that requires abstinence.
Being part of a supportive community is key. Participants are going through similar struggles, and helping each other through them is crucial as residents learn the skills to be housed, to be healthy, and to contribute to the wider community.
At the VITC, an all-male program, applicants self-refer or are referred by a doctor or shelter, fill out forms and go through an interview before they are put on a list, says Lyne Coderre, director of therapeutic communities at VITC.
So long as applicants are ready for treatment, motivated, wanting to make change, and their funding is in place, they are put on a waitlist until a space opens up in the program.
Running for seven years now, the program requires a commitment of at least four months, and up to a year, where a resident shares a room with another resident who has been in the program for longer. Later on, the mentee then becomes the mentor for another new resident.
The program includes three meals a day, but along with that comes lessons on cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning, and everything you need to know to eventually live on your own.
Residents attend cognitive behavioural therapy, and work through a treatment plan with staff.
But all these elements of the program are reinforced through a “community as method” philosophy, where residents help to teach and provide for each other, whether by cooking group meals for each-other, working in a peer group, or helping a roommate when they are struggling.
“A lot of the people we do have move into the program are either coming from the street or another treatment centre or prison, so a lot of the time, they don’t have a lot of support when they are coming into the community,” says Lyne.
“One of the things with our TC (therapeutic community) is they get to be with likeminded people that have the same goals that they have, which is getting clean and stabilizing their lives. So, I think there is something that builds that camaraderie, just having some people where there is no judgement and they have the same struggles that you do.”
“A lot of the people that we have come to the program have experienced a lot of trauma in their life, or they have grown up in families that already struggle with addiction … [they] just don’t have a lot of support in their lives, they don’t have healthy support.”
The VITC tries to provide that support structure, and keep it going even after people leave the program. Once they’ve left, former residents can still tap into VITC support and their peer support there. Residents also often continue their relationships after leaving the program. Lyne recalls an instance where a resident was the best man to another for their wedding.
“They actually go on to build lifelong friendships,” she says.
The program also helps residents to give back to their surrounding community by providing help with yard work and other things, which helps neighbours to familiarize themselves with the work of the VITC, and helps residents feel like valued members of society.
Despite the program’s various requirements, residents still have to make that choice to apply and take part in it, says Lyne. And even though the program requires no drug use, relapses happen, and even after successfully completing the program, some former residents choose to use again.
Sometimes, former residents choose to return to the program. Others choose to go into the Housing First Program. Others go on to live independently in market housing. While the ultimate goal is for residents to live independent, healthy lives, getting there can take more time for some than for others, and the end result often looks different for different people.
But VITC’s creation of a supportive community, and what it teaches residents means those who attend are better able to live housed and healthy lives.
United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island is a crucial partner in providing funding for the VITC and other John Howard programing, directing Reaching Home funding to keep it going.
But more funding and support for programs like these are needed.
Currently, the VITC building has room for 20 people, but the program only has funding for 14 at a time.
The VITC forms part of a continuum of options that can help people achieve health and housing. Like the Housing First program, it will not work for everyone. But, by making different kinds of housing and support options available to community members, we can support more of our neighbours.