A recent Canadian study is showing that addressing housing needs for people who are living on the streets and struggling with mental illness could reduce homelessness in the long term.
The report was published in Lancet Psychiatry by scientists at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
The Housing First program provides immediate access to rent supplements and mental health support services to people who are struggling with both homelessness and mental illness.
The program started out in 2008 as a research demonstration project and was implemented in five Canadian cities, including Winnipeg.
“It’s consistent with what we learned in Winnipeg, in that Housing First is a more effective way to support people who are homeless and living with issues with mental health or addictions,” said Corinne Isaak, the manager of evaluation and shared measurement at End Homelessness Winnipeg.
“Through Housing First they get immediate support with a team as well as get placed in housing right away, so there’s no pre-requirements for readiness, there’s no pre-requirement for any kind of sobriety or being committed to knowing a specific regime in terms of a mental health treatment.”
The Housing First program differs from traditional approaches to addressing homelessness, which requires people to stop using substances or receive psychiatric treatment before they can be eligible for housing support services.
Isaak says putting housing first is putting people first.
“It’s really more of a person-centered approach, where it’s really more about the person and what they need and where they’re at,” she said.
“If a person is experiencing mental health issues, there can be all kinds of challenges that interfere with them accessing housing (and) being able to advocate for themselves.”
The study followed participants over a six-year period. After the six years, the group that went through the Housing First program had stable housing 85 per cent of the time, whereas the group that went through the traditional model had stable housing 60 per cent of the time.
However, some advocates say it should be done on a case-by-case basis.
“I think it’s based on the individual. I don’t want to paint everybody with the same brush because what works for one doesn’t work for another,” said Christy Loudon, the community outreach manager for Downtown Winnipeg BIZ’s Community Homeless Assistance Team (CHAT).
“I’ve seen where it’s worked really well for a person to be placed in a house or a home, and then walk away from it because the anxiety was so great that they needed intensive support after the fact too,” Loudon added.