Housing first for mentally ill homeless

More than 1,300 homeless people across Canada will be provided housing as part of a massive four-year project to study the link between mental health and homelessness.

A new research project designed to study the link between mental health and homelessness is giving more than 1,300 people across Canada a chance to get something many might not have thought possible: a roof over their head.

The At Home research project, launched Monday by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, hopes to determine the value of providing housing first — and then following it with rehabilitation and treatment — for those who are homeless and mentally ill.

Altogether 1,350 people in Moncton, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver will be provided housing, and close to 1,000 other people will be provided health and social services but won't receive housing. Researchers will track both groups to assess the comparative success of each method.

For Richard Peel, the first of 300 homeless people in Vancouver to be given a rent-free apartment as part of the program, the transition was hard to grasp.

'I was sleeping behind a Money Mart for months, and the next thing I knew I had a one bedroom apartment, furnished.'—Vancouver resident Richard Peel

"I was numb. I couldn't believe something like this could happen overnight," said Peel, who told CBC News he has struggled with both mental illness and drug addiction.

"I was sleeping behind a Money Mart for months, and the next thing I knew I had a one bedroom apartment, furnished! So it was pretty drastic."

Largest study of its kind

Dr. Stephen Hwang, with the Centre of Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael's Hospital, said the study could change the way researchers and public-policy makers think about both homelessness and methods of treatment for the mentally ill.

"It takes a housing-first approach, which means that instead of demanding they get treatment for their mental illness we provide them with housing, which gives them the stability to get treatment to then go on and make other changes in their lives," said Hwang.

The project, which runs until 2013, is getting $110 million in federal funding.

Michael Kirby, the former Liberal senator who chairs the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said the goal of the project is to learn lessons that could be shared with cities across Canada and internationally.

"As best as we know, no other country has ever approached this issue with anywhere near the size and scope that we are doing, that's why [international partners] are so interested in the outcome," he said.

Different cities, different issues

The project doesn't take a one-size-fits-all approach, either, said Kirby, with different regions looking at specific issues.

The Vancouver site, for example, will focus on treatment of people with substance abuse issues, Winnipeg will be following people with a First Nations background and Toronto will focus on homeless from immigrant or ethno-racial groups.

Moncton will look at issues faced by rural residents who end up in larger cities, while the Montreal site will look at helping the homeless join the workforce.

Kirby praised Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his support of the project, which received its funding in the 2008 federal budget.

"Mental illness is not a partisan issue," said Kirby at a press conference in Toronto on Monday. "It's an issue that crosses the boundaries of everybody regardless of where you are in the political horizon."

The program is based on the success of New York City's Pathways to Housing initiative, founded in 1992 by Canadian Dr. Sam Tsemberis.