A new federally funded program on P.E.I. called Housing First aims to help Islanders end the pitfalls that send them into homelessness.

Housing First, which launched last September, not only helps people find an affordable place to live, but it also offers support to tackle the root of what's causing the problem.

Organizers say many people don't believe the Island has a homeless problem because it's rare to find people sleeping in alcoves or in the street.

Instead they're described as the hidden homeless.

Work on Housing First started last year with a survey of service providers that revealed more than 200 Islanders were without a home, either couch surfing, living with relatives or having nowhere to live after getting out of a mental health facility or jail.

A way to help P.E.I.'s hidden homeless 

Bryan Kinch is one of 19 people Housing First has helped in Charlottetown and Summerside since September. The 29-year-old says addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues have made holding on to an apartment difficult. 

"I used to be a severe alcoholic and that's why most of the time I would get kicked out of the places."  

Kinch had already exhausted the one-month stay allowed at the Bedford MacDonald House in Charlottetown and time at another Charlottetown shelter after being released from Hillsborough Hospital this summer.

He was worried he would end up living on the street, until he found Housing First.

'This is the first time living on my own.' — Bryan Kinch, Housing First client 

Staff helped Kinch find a tiny bachelor apartment in downtown Charlottetown. Kinch said he loves sleeping, watching TV and cooking in his own place. 

"This is the first time I'm living on my own," said Kinch. "I'm staying sober and I love it." 

​Housing First helped with Kinch's sobriety by getting him into addictions treatment and now he's taking career counselling so he can move beyond just odd jobs.

"It's helping me to get back on my feet the right way, which I always wanted."  

More than just 'bricks and mortar'

Housing First co-ordinator Bev Thompson said that extra support is what makes Housing First stand out from many other homelessness initiatives that often end up being temporary fixes.

Bev Thompson

Housing First co-ordinator Bev Thompson says Housing First goes beyond simply finding clients housing, and tackles the root of what's causing the homelessness. (Laura Chapin/CBC)

"A lot of times dollars have been directed towards bricks and mortar, but there hasn't necessarily been the supports that people need to sustain that housing," said Thompson.

"I think that's the difference: Having the supports until people learn the skills and they're able to sustain it themselves." 

'We now have people who have been housed longer than they've ever been.' — Housing First coordinator Bev Thompson

She said that's already happened with a couple of the clients Housing First has helped.

"They've found employment. They're starting to return to work and they're very settled, so the level of support we're giving to them now versus five months ago is different," said Thompson.

"We now have people who have been housed longer than they've ever been housed in months and years." 

The five-year Housing First program, offered by the Homelessness Partnership Strategy, is being run with $1.4 million from Employment and Development Canada. 

Thompson estimates, with the six front-line staff and the funding, the program can help about 100 people across the Island at one time. 

People can apply for the program through the John Howard Society P.E.I. or the Canadian Mental Health Association P.E.I.