House for homeless Winnipeg men celebrates first year of success

St. Boniface Street Links is celebrating the first anniversary of Morberg House's success. Forty-three men have left the shelter and moved on to find permanent housing. Another 21 men and women have found housing through a separate program.

Dozens of formerly homeless men in Winnipeg now have a home to call their own

Robert Lidstone loves his new home at Morberg House. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Robert Lidstone sits in the sun and reads a book on the front steps of Morberg House in north St. Boniface. 

He's happy to call this place home.

But he was only able to find the reprieve after years of addiction and homelessness. 

Lidstone, 36, says his life took a sharp turn ​while he was studying for his PhD at York University in Toronto.

"At the age of 25, I had an acute depression where I stopped functioning in a lot of ways," he told CBC News.

"I would go into lower and lower dips, but I did enough to appear as if I was getting by. Inside though, I was really suffering. Then drugs entered the picture —  that's how I coped with the pain." 

Dark time

His addiction to crystal meth continued on and off for a decade. He says his longest period of abstinence was 15 months in Toronto when he went through a 12-step recovery program and treatment at an addictions centre.

Lidstone says the programs helped, but he knew there was something deeper he had to face.

House for homeless Winnipeg men celebrates first year of success

4 years ago
Duration 2:26
The first anniversary of a house for homeless men is being celebrated in Winnipeg. 2:26

"I was very anxious as a child," he said. "I worried about everything. I worried if we had enough money to buy something and we had middle-class security. I tried to mediate conflict in my family. I took on the worries of an adult."

Lidstone moved back to Winnipeg where he was born and grew up, and lived on the streets in the dead of winter. Some nights he slept on the floor of the basement bathroom of St. Boniface Hospital. His family filed a missing persons report and his picture was broadcast on television.

"I was cold and hungry and needed shelter," he said. "Someone I knew took me to Morberg House and I had a meal. They said I could come back. When I met Marion Willis, the head of Street Links and the shelter, she agreed to let me move in." 

That's when Lidstone's life started to change for the better. 

Willis knew Lidstone was struggling with a mental health issue, and  she immediately connected him with a psychiatrist who regularly visits Morberg House through the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

The house also has a psychiatric nurse on staff through a partnership with Brandon University, a position paid for by the Catholic Health Corp. Community support workers and social workers are provided through Robertson College and Booth College.

Model worth copying 

Lidstone says the model at Morberg House — being taken in unconditionally, living in community with others who are also struggling and having access to services right in the house — was pivotal in his healing; 

It's a model Willis envisioned when she started up Morberg House a year ago.

Since then, dozens of men have moved on to permanent housing. Some have found employment in mostly seasonal work such as construction and landscaping. Others have been linked to employment readiness programs. Only five have returned to the streets.

"In one year, this grassroots little organization has made a difference. Forty-three men off the street. Another 21 clients housed through a separate program elsewhere in the city. No one has produced these outcomes," Willis said with a smile. "We have become the rock stars of ending homelessness as a team. This entire community has embraced us and is here for us."

Lidstone would like to see more houses like Morberg pop up for the homeless.

"It should be reproduced elsewhere," he said. "In other programs, you go into treatment for a few weeks and it's a protected world. Then you go back to the real world and have a hard time coping. Here at Morberg, we get the help we need while we are connected and live in the community." 

A day at a time

As Lidstone continues to recover, he is brushing up on his French and recently picked up a bike at the St. Boniface co-op. He hopes to return to research and writing in the near future, but for now he lives a day at a time.

"I have never felt like this in my whole life," he said. "I live every day in that day. Of course I still have moments where I worry and regret things from my past, but I live in this day and it's a wonderful day. We have this fabulous park right around the corner and I went for a hike with one of my house mates. St. Boniface is beautiful."

As for the five men who chose to return to the street, Marion Willis isn't worried. 

"They are still connected with us like one big family," she said. "We continue to stay in contact with them. I think some have lived outside for so long, they are addicted to the lifestyle as well as their vice to cope with the lifestyle. We don't abandon anyone.

"The Morberg house family is huge and I know they will come through here another time." 

The 10-bed facility struggles to get by month to month on private donations. It does receive some money from Employment and Income Assistance for each person living in the house.