Farmer David Methot, left, of Amarosia Organic Farm, Jessica Forbes and Carla Heide of At Home/Chez Soi and Gabriel Doiron, a project participant, in the fields in Grande-Digue. ((Vanessa Blanch/CBC))

A Grande-Digue farmer is sharing his fields and his knowledge with participants in a federal pilot project that's aimed at helping homeless people who are suffering from mental illness.

The At Home/Chez Soi Program is a "housing-first initiative" that is run by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The program, which has similar initiatives in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto, sets up participants in an apartment and are given access to daily support from counsellors, doctors, nurses and psychologists.

David Méthot, who operates Amarosia Organic Garden in Grande-Digue, said he heard about the project at a conference and knew that he wanted to be part of it.

"We look at our government and say, fix the problems, and our current government seems to be saying, 'Well let's build prisons,'" Méthot said.

'They're learning to learn is how I look at it and if you can learn to learn then you can go anywhere.' —David Méthot

"So we have to come back to our roots and say, the community is taking care of its problems now. So I think this is the future."

In mid-June, five participants arrived at Méthot's farm for the first time. 

They will spend the next three months learning and working in the fields in the morning, then they'll make lunch together.

"They're planting some peppers right now," Méthot said.

"So they're learning something and it's not just about the physical skills that they're learning. But they're learning to learn is how I look at it. And if you can learn to learn then you can go anywhere."

Work next step

Claudette Bradshaw, the former federal Liberal cabinet minister and the co-ordinator of the At Home/Chez Soi program, said many of the 125 participants want to get back into the workforce now that their basic needs are being met.


The view of the ocean from the green pepper field on Amarosia Organic Farm in Grande-Digue. ((Vanessa Blanch/CBC))

"What happens is this, it's really interesting, they get an apartment and when they get their apartment they're very lonely because their friends are on the street and they were extremely, extremely lonely and they wanted to work," Bradshaw said.

However, Bradshaw said joining the work world has its challenges for both the participants and the people who will employ them.

"Some of the challenges for us is when we work with employers is to be truthful. For some, it's going to be extremely difficult," she said.

"Some days they're not going to be able to come to work. Some are going to be maybe able to work once a week. But what if they could work once a week for 10 years, or the rest of their lives?"

Jessica Forbes, the program's vocational co-ordinator, said after interviewing all of the participants, 52 told her that finding work is one of their goals.

She said the participants are eager for somewhere to go.

"They want to have to structure their time in a way that we take for granted and the way the workplace is structured right now is a 40-hour work week … that isn't necessarily going to work for all these guys but that doesn't mean they can't work at all," Forbes said.

"It's giving them a place to go and it's allowing them to enjoy their weekends and appreciate it a little bit more because come Monday they're going to be back in the working world."

Participant hopeful

Donna Girouard is one of the five participants taking part in the three months of training on the farm. She joined the program in October 2010 after years of being homeless.

'It's not staying home and looking out the window. Or just lying in my bed and trying to change the pain from one place to another. It's actually something to do.' — Donna Girouard

Girouard suffers from kidney disease and explained that one of the side effects for her has been depression.

As pleased as she was to be accepted into the program, she said she found it isolating to be in an apartment of her own.

"It was actually a lot harder at the beginning than I thought. Being alone … it was difficult to get used to," she said.

"I found it extremely hard and lonely and I just did the same thing, I just locked myself in my bedroom. I had no life."

Girouard said her kidney disease makes it painful to work in the fields planting, but even with the pain it's worth it.

"It's not staying home and looking out the window. Or just lying in my bed and trying to change the pain from one place to another. It's actually something to do," she said.

Bradshaw said she was amazed watching the workers planting green pepper plants in the long rows of soil. She said she can't believe these same people were homeless just months ago.

"Imagine next year if we had 10 farmers that wanted to take the time that David is taking and share what David is sharing," Bradshaw said.

"And that's what's going to make a difference in the lives of people with mental illness. That's how we're going to do this. It's going to be by people opening their doors."