Homes First has recently taken on an impressive team of bloggers who are going to explore our mission, vision and help illustrate the daily life inside our organization. Our first post comes to you from one of our special members, Marcus Bankuti, who has been assisting with Homes First’s Resident Newsletters for almost a year now!
This post starts with a very important topic – housing first. Marcus details from our very own residents at our Strachan house property and goes on to make very important distinctions between what is affordable vs. supportive in the housing sector. Enough about it already, just read it! And start following/supporting our amazing team!
More Than Housing
“It’s good to have a key to a place to call home,” says Douglas, his head cradled by his hand, his elbow propped up by the arm of his wheelchair.
It’s a sentiment echoed by many of his fellow Strachan House residents. A person cannot begin to tackle the complex challenges associated with homelessness when they have no safe, stable place to return to each night. This is the bedrock of the “housing first” approach that is at the core of Homes First, but it’s not the whole story.
Douglas explains, “[Supportive housing] has helped greatly. Without [it] I don’t know what I’d be doing. Because of supportive, you know, the help I get—that’s one of the main reasons I stay here.
Supportive housing goes beyond putting a key in a person’s pocket. It is a comprehensive approach to helping those in need to escape the cycles of homelessness or hospitalization that have entangled them.
With supportive housing, a person is provided a range of supports to help foster independence and recovery, often with an eye toward a transition to fully independent living. In this spirit, the programming is emphatically focused on cultivating the potential of the residents.
The availability of helpful staff is critical, but what other supports are available can range depending on the needs of the clients in a particular residence. These might include help with transportation, managing medication, navigating social assistance, employment reintegration, cooking skills, activities, or various outings, such as trips to renew a health card or file taxes, or to High Park or a parade.
Generally, the spectrum of programming is designed to facilitate the development of necessary life and work skills on one end, while providing residents with a means of expression or enjoyment on the other.
As people, our ability to work and to execute our obligations is only a part of what enables us to function successfully; the ability to pursue and discover the interests and social connections that make our lives worthwhile are also fundamental to our success as individuals. This is why in a supportive housing environment, yoga and karaoke may be found alongside computer tutoring and health programs.
Creative expression can also be an important aspect of recovery, and indeed many Homes First residents have shown a proclivity for creative endeavours. Some individuals may be discovering their creative abilities for the first time in settings such as the writing workshops held at Strachan House and 90 Shuter St. each week.
Like anybody, people working to escape homelessness or precarious housing situations value freedom of choice, and one’s agency is critical to building and maintaining an independent self-concept. Therefore, participation is encouraged, but voluntary. This is an important distinction compared to more restrictive housing models.
The benefits of offering supports to residents who need them may seem obvious, but in fact supportive housing is a relatively modern concept. If geared to people living with mental illness, it stands in contrast to the older model of custodial housing, which is still used, and which is characterized by a lack of privacy, a lack of coordination of services and supports, and the simple provision of necessities like meals and laundry rather than a focus on the development of important life skills.
According to a CAMH study, around a third of funding for housing in Ontario for people suffering mental illness still goes to custodial rather than supportive housing, as of 2012. This is problematic, because the emphasis on managing the perceived deficits of the residents demanded by the custodial system obscures hope for rehabilitation.
It is easy to see how supportive housing also differs substantially from simple affordable housing. In “Between the Lines,” a documentary about addiction and harm-reduction produced by the residents of Strachan House, itself a fine example of creativity harnessed in supportive housing, resident “Quick Draw” relates some of his feelings about his living environment and the supports he depends on:
“To me, when I hear the word housing, it’s like, you’ve been housed somewhere, and it’s geared to your income, but there’s something better than that, and that’s supportive housing. For me, personally, I love supportive housing. … [Simple affordable housing] would not be the best place for me … I really need the supports and the supports do help me a lot.”
He later elaborates, “I feel better since I’ve been living in supportive housing as to when I didn’t. I have my privacy now. I feel a little bit more positive, just for the fact that, you know, I’ve got my own little place now, you know what I mean, and I’m good, like, I’m comfortable there, and that’s such a good feeling, and I haven’t felt like that for quite a few years, being homeless.”
Each day, many marginalized people find hope and the possibility for a better future in the embrace of supportive housing, but many others languish on wait lists, on streets, or in housing situations that lack important supports to facilitate health, security, and independence. To see this reality change, we must recognize not only the need for funding, but the importance of hearing the voices so often muffled by noise.
~ Marcus Bankuti
Marcus Bankuti is a socially-conscious writer and editor, steadfast Torontonian, and a graduate of Ryerson University’s Arts and Contemporary Studies program. He’s focused on pointing a thoughtful eye at the humanity of our urban landscape.