Senior evicted from mental health facility, left to live in tent with rats
To help people battling mental health issues, provinces must provide stable housing first, study suggests
Judy Trask can barely sleep at night — curled up in a tent hidden in the bushes of a Victoria, B.C., park, worried that rats will attack, or worse, that she'll be raped.
The 65-year-old ended up homeless, she says, after she was given two hours to pack what she could carry and get out of an apartment operated by a government-run mental health program.
In March, according to Trask, staff sent her onto the street to fend for herself, handing her only a "street survival guide" to get by: a brochure that lists the locations of soup kitchens, 24-hour washrooms and homeless shelters.
According to the eviction letter, Trask was kicked out of the mental health treatment facility after staff decided the program wasn't working for her, saying the senior was verbally aggressive and threatening toward staff.
"I mean my God, they think you're just human cattle," said Trask, who says she suffers from suicidal depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and a severe anxiety disorder.
Trask had been in the live-in treatment program for a year. She was sent there from another facility in the Comox Valley, more than 200 kilometres northwest of Victoria, after that program underwent cutbacks, she said.
The senior has no ID — it was stolen —and no family that can help. She often doesn't take the mood-stabilizing medications she needs.
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She's been sleeping in homeless shelters and tents hidden in Victoria public parks since being evicted from the live-in treatment program last spring.
Begged to stay
While Vancouver Island Health's motto is, "Excellent health and care for everyone, everywhere, every time," spokesperson Cheryl Bloxham told Go Public the health authority does discharge mentally ill people into emergency shelters "as a last resort."
She said involuntary discharges are rare but that there is no database tracking exact numbers.
Bloxham wouldn't comment on Trask's case, citing confidentiality rules, but said Island Health ensures those who are discharged and willing to participate in treatment programs continue to have access to mental health and substance-use services.
Trask says she was willing to participate, even begged to stay.
Trask is part of a broken system lacking housing and treatment facilities that can result in people with mental illness being put out onto the street, where their condition deteriorates, according to Jino Distasio, a researcher who has studied how to house people with mental health challenges.
"Dumping people onto the streets or into the shelter networks [is] everything we've been trying to undo over the last decade," he said.
That adds pressure on overburdened emergency services across the country.
Rats 'running all over her body'
Trask found an advocate in Carolina Tudela — a volunteer for a homeless drop-in centre — after she called in, asking for help dealing with rats that had entered her tent.
"It was overrun for sure. They were running all over her body when I found her," said Tudela.
Tudela picked Trask up and drove her around that June night, offering to pay for a hotel, but she couldn't get her a room because Trask had no identification.
Trask ended up going back to her tent that night.
"What outrages me is the indifference and callousness," Tudela told Go Public. "That somebody can just be kicked out of a program like that … with nowhere to go. Just 'Good luck.'"
In September, police confiscated Trask's tent after finding it in a public park, leaving her to sleep on mats on the floors of homeless shelters or outdoors on church steps.
She says she was surrounded by violence. Now, she's back at a park in another tent belonging to another homeless person, hoping this one is hidden far enough from public view that it won't be confiscated.
Tudela wrote to the provincial health authority and the B.C. government in August, asking them to help Trask.
She says no one responded.
Housing key to improving mental health: study
Although the eviction letter said Trask had been verbally aggressive and threatening, her advocate says Trask is "a very frail woman."
"She's all about 110 pounds," Tudela said. "She lives in constant fear she'll be kicked out of the tent she's got or that she's going to be raped at night. She lives in constant fear of harm."
Mental health experts estimate that 35,000 people are homeless in Canada on any given night — and of those, approximately 15 per cent suffer from mental illness.
"There's just no way in a country like Canada that we should have this many people on any given night struggling with shelter," said Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.
He says the reasons given for Trask's eviction are common challenges when treating people with certain mental health issues.
He worked on one of the largest mental health services trials ever conducted in Canada, called At Home/Chez Soi (AHCS), and says leaving patients with no place to live and no access to treatment goes against the study's findings.
The AHCS study he co-authored followed more than 2,000 participants for two years with test sites in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton, N.B.
It found that the most important requirement for improving the lives of people with mental health issues is stable housing.
The study, published Oct. 7, is considered the longest-running of its kind using the Housing First model, which is believed to significantly reduce homelessness over the long term.
WATCH | Judy Trask shows housing advocate Carolina Tudela her tent in a Victoria park:
Without stable housing, Distasio says, patients' mental health deteriorates, putting more pressure on the emergency services everyone uses and pays for.
"Overuse of ERs, emergency services, police, fire, ambulance. It's a cascade of services and supports to address these individuals," Distasio told Go Public.
'The coldness of it all'
Go Public put Trask's situation to Canada's first provincial minister of mental health and addictions, British Columbia's Judy Darcy, who admits the system is broken.
"For years, many people in B.C. have been struggling to navigate a fragmented and unco-ordinated mental health and addictions system of care," Darcy said in an email to Go Public. "Our government is working to change this."
Darcy says the B.C. government plans to build 2,200 affordable housing units and expand access to mental health and addictions programs. Advocates say other provinces need to follow suit.
As for Trask, she remains homeless. Tudela regularly checks on her friend and says she's worried about what might happen to her living on the street.
"You know the program is not working when you throw people out on the street. I mean, this is a senior citizen. Judy has mental health problems," says Tudela. "The system is broken … I don't understand the coldness of it all."
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With files by Jenn Blair