The related issues of addiction and homelessness have dogged Vancouver Island communities in high-profile fashion in recent years.
Somewhat overshadowed this summer by the tent cities in Saanich and Nanaimo is the tale of a planned supportive housing project in Parksville.
Designed to provide housing and support for people living on the street, or at risk of ending up there, the $6.9 million “Corfield” project has sharply divided the community since being announced in March.
This morning, Vancouver Island Free Daily correspondent Adam Kveton takes a deeper look at the rationale behind supportive housing, through the lens of the Corfield proposal.
Many members of the Parksville community and beyond have voiced various concerns regarding the planned supportive housing project at 222 Corfield St. South.
Those range from concern for a drop in housing prices, increased crime, a negative impact on tourism, safety issues for those living nearby and the idea that the facility could attract more homeless people to the area.
There has also been a basic disagreement over the service the supportive housing project seeks to provide — cheap housing and supports for those who are living on the streets or at risk of becoming homeless, even if some of those people have addictions.
The growing belief among service providers for more than a decade (broadly backed up by research) is that providing people with housing first gives them a better chance at recovering from health issues and mental illness including addictions.
However, in many communities including Parksville, some residents feel support such as housing should only be given after its earned — after those with addictions get clean.
In an effort to discuss why providing housing first has become the norm, and to address some of the community’s concerns, The NEWS sat down with Violet Hayes (executive director for Island Crisis Care Society) and Renate Sutherland (member of the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness). Island Crisis Care Society (ICCS) will operate the proposed facility.
The Corfield site will not be the first place where a housing-first strategy will be used in Parksville, said Sutherland and Hayes.
For about three-and-a-half years, ICCS has been housing local homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless through leases it holds with local landlords, using a housing-first strategy.
Landlords choose to work with ICCS and local support organizations to house these people and at least one has chosen to increase the number of units they lease to ICCS, said Hayes.
The benefit to landlords is that ICCS commits to keeping the unit clean and in good repair, and also deals with eviction (tenants sign a program agreement rather than a tenancy agreement, meaning if they don’t continue to achieve their goals as part of the agreement, they lose tenancy).
The success rate (people remaining housed and becoming healthier, etc.) is 80 per cent, said Hayes.
While that housing includes regular contact (daily if needed) with support workers as well as access to various community supports, the Corfield facility would be an improvement for many people as it would have 24-7 staff and be closer to supports in the city (from the SOS, the Salvation Army food bank, Manna Homeless Society, Forward House and more) as well as grocery stores and employment opportunities.
Over the years, many studies have been done on housing-first facilities both in Canada and the United States. The main benefits to the strategy are in the cost to society as a whole, success in keeping people housed and improved health and community involvement for the no-longer homeless.
A two-year study following more than 2,000 people living on the street with mental health issues (sometimes including substance abuse) in five Canadian communities found that many more remained housed compared to those who had gone through the typical approach to homelessness.
“In Canada, our current response relies heavily upon shelters for emergency housing and emergency and crisis services for health care,” reads the Cross-Site At Home/Chez Soi Project final report from 2014.
“Typically, individuals who are homeless must first participate in treatment and attain a period of sobriety before they are offered housing. This is a costly and ineffective way of responding to the problem.”
In the last six months of the project, 62 per cent of those in housing first remained housed all of the time, compared to 31 per cent in the typical model.
Also, with housing first, the study showed a reduction in cost. For those with high needs, for every $10 invested, $9.60 was saved via a reduction in costs to other services. For those with moderate needs, $3.42 was saved for every $10.
A Regina housing-first project found that, after providing housing first to 26 people in 2016-17, policing costs were reduced by $200,000, hospital stay costs were reduced by more than $300,000, emergency room visits saw $400,000 in savings, and detox visits were down by $980,000.
The At Home/Chez Soi study did not find increased improvement in the areas of mental health and substance abuse, but found improvements similar to those in the typical model.
However, a summary of literature by Simon Fraser University on housing people with substance use and concurrent disorders found that “the provision of housing has a clear and positive impact on psychiatric symptoms and substance use disorders,” showing improved abstinence among people who get drug treatment with housing as opposed to just drug treatment.
The same SFU paper reported that an analysis of 18 studies “showed that the location of residential treatment facilities had no significant effect on either the sale price of homes in the neighbourhood or on the number of property sales. Two studies observed homes that took longer to sell than homes in other neighbourhoods.
A BC Housing case study showed an overall reduction in police calls six months after the opening of five supportive housing projects. In total, there were 4,676 calls to police in the six months before openings and 3,821 calls in the six months after openings. One site saw an increase in calls to police, with the number of calls typically below five per month.
The plan for Corfield is to carefully manage who lives there, to set them up for success, support them (with daily visits if necessary), and, when necessary, remove them when they don’t meet their end of the bargain, said Sutherland.
“We’re not trying to create chaos here,” she said.
Everyone housed at Corfield would first have to sign a program agreement (as opposed to a tenancy agreement). The program agreement includes goals for each person to work toward while housed there, with help from staff at Corfield and local organizations.
“For some who are seniors with not good health, it’s going to be about ‘I’m going to get my health back so that I can clean my own apartment. I’m going to get my health back so I can cook for myself again,’” said Sutherland.
“And for others it will be, ‘I have an illness that I’ve not been able to manage on my own. I’m going to be able to regularly take my medication. I’m going to be able to go to see my doctor on a regular basis.’”
Things such as finding a job, or getting addictions treatment are other possible goals, though Sutherland noted, “ The majority of people who are in the building will not be drug addicts.”
Currently, a HOST team (Homelessness Outreach Support Team) made up of representatives from local organizations manages a waitlist of people looking to be housed. Of the current waiting list of 19 people, one has a serious addiction problem, said Hayes.
That same group, along with ICCS, will be managing the list for Corfield.
Locally, between those living in bushes and on the street, and those living in terrible housing conditions, there are “more than enough” people locally to fill Corfield, said Sutherland.
But HOST and ICCS will also be careful to manage who is living at Corfield: successful tenants will have to be a good fit, meaning HOST and ICCS don’t believe one tenant’s struggles will negatively impact others living at the site.
Some people just won’t be ready to be housed, Sutherland said.
Security measures for Corfield include the doors in and out being locked at all times, security cameras and lighting outside the building, a fenced-in rear area, a check-in and check-out procedure for guests, and no overnight guests allowed.
Though some people have said they believe it’s illegal to not allow overnight guests, Sutherland said that, because tenants sign a program agreement and not a tenancy agreement, overnight guests can be denied.
ICCS also plans for a community advisory council to be struck, which would include staff from the building, a homeless outreach support worker from the community, a member of the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness, a member of the public from the neighbourhood and up to five other members of the community.
The goal of the council will be to address concerns with the facility, Sutherland said.
“We will be very open where, if we need to make adjustments, we’re willing to do that to ensure security,” she said.
There will also be a 24-hour phone number that the public can call with concerns.
Ultimately, the point of the facility, and housing first in general, is to provide a home and support to give people the best chance at getting off the street and improving their lives, said Sutherland.
“We won’t condone drug use and alcoholism. That’s not what we’re there for,” she said.
“We’re there to support people to get well… It’s about also giving people an opportunity to stabilize, to get their health back, to get some proper nutrition into them as well as to get some proper rest into them and bring their stress levels down. Then you start to deal with addiction issues. And again, that will not be the majority of people who are in the building.”
For more info on the project, go to oceansidehomelessness.com or www.islandcrisiscaresociety.ca/programs/222-corfield-street-south.