What Is The Issue?
Winnipeg presents a situation unique among the five cities involved in the At Home/Chez Soi project: approximately 70 per cent of its homeless population is Aboriginal. This meant that, in addition to dealing with the issue of mental health and homelessness, the Winnipeg team had to take an approach that could also address trauma related to discrimination and the residential school system, which has contributed to years of substance abuse in many participants.
What Are We Doing?
To best represent the city’s homeless population, Winnipeg’s At Home/Chez Soi study focused primarily on providing services for Aboriginal people. Yet despite this focus, care was taken to provide quality individualized services and supports to the 30 per cent of participants who were not of Aboriginal heritage.
Developing a culturally appropriate service infrastructure
To create a system capable of implementing a Housing First approach appropriate to Winnipeg’s Aboriginal context, the At Home/Chez Soi team first needed to establish the right service and research infrastructure. Doing so involved the recruitment of two independent, not-for-profit Aboriginal health agencies to provide Intensive Case Management (ICM) services: the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre and the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre. Mount Carmel Clinic was recruited to provide the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) service because of their experience in working with Aboriginal people. The University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba led the research component and were involved in the project’s implementation in Winnipeg.
Through their contributions, the At Home/Chez Soi service teams took on holistic, culturally sensitive approaches to healing and working with study participants at their own pace to make changes in their lifestyles and remain stably housed. All three agencies also stepped forward to offer their unique services to the non-Aboriginal mental health and social service community as well, exposing many participants to Aboriginal culture and healing for the first time. The research team also took on holistic, culturally sensitive approaches to engage the Aboriginal community in the research and learn about the implementation of Housing First in the Winnipeg context.
Creating the capacity to deliver Housing First
With a vacancy rate of nearly zero, Winnipeg has the fewest available affordable housing units of the five At Home/Chez Soi sites. To give landlords an incentive to take in participants, the project team founded Manitoba Green Retrofit, which worked with landlords to repair any damage to their units at an affordable cost. Several study participants were hired by Manitoba Green Retrofit to do this work, providing much-needed employment and skills development to Winnipeg’s urban homeless population.
Another organization created through the program was Housing Plus, which helped study participants with the logistics of moving in and setting up their new homes. Further housing and support services were provided by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. These partnerships helped ensure housing was available to At Home participants in Winnipeg.
Giving voice to people who have been homeless
To ensure Winnipeg’s homeless population had a voice in the project, a Lived Experience Committee (LEC) comprised of study participants and others with a history of homelessness, was established to provide the research and service teams with a better understanding of the issues faced by the homeless population on a day-to-day basis.
To raise awareness of these issues among the broader community, the At Home/Chez Soi service teams participated in Winnipeg’s 2012 Homelessness Awareness Week. The general public was given the opportunity to participate in an experiential workshop, giving them a glimpse into the life of someone who is homeless and living with mental health issues, highlighting the challenges, barriers and struggles of navigating through systems to get basic daily needs met. Meanwhile, the Focusing the Frame program supplied study participants with cameras and photography lessons to help them capture their experiences, with many of the pictures taken displayed at an art exhibition at the United Way’s Atrium in November 2011.
What We’ve Learned
With the right level of housing and support, it is possible to transition people experiencing homelessness—even those with complex histories of trauma and addiction—from a very challenging lifestyle on the streets and see them succeed. The Winnipeg At Home/Chez Soi final report has found that participants who received housing and services experienced more signs of recovery than those who did not.
This study also demonstrated the critical importance of community involvement in any initiative focused on homelessness and mental health. This includes more than the participation of local service providers and people with lived experience; in Winnipeg’s case, the involvement of Aboriginal people and agencies was essential, as they were able to reach out and engage the city’s marginalized and underserved Aboriginal homeless population in ways others have never done before.