How mental health services are helping get homeless Montrealers off the street

France Rousseau is among the beneficiaries of an expanding Montreal program that provides services to homeless people with mental health issues. She's about to move into her own apartment.

Program expands, now offers services in 3 city shelters

France Rousseau completed PRISM, a program aimed at helping homeless people with mental health issues, and is about to move into her own apartment. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

France Rousseau beams as she considers what's next: her own apartment.

For years, Rousseau struggled with mental illness and alcoholism. She hit rock-bottom last summer when, in a state of psychosis, she set fire to her rooming house.

She blacked out, she said, and woke up in a hospital bed. When she was released, she had nowhere to go.

That's when she got help from a team of psychiatrists, nurses and social workers through a program called PRISM, which provides services to homeless people with mental health issues.

"They helped me get the resources I need," she said Wednesday at the Old Brewery Mission, where an expansion of the program was announced.

At one point, what happens is people find their feet, and they can start living their life again.- Dr. Olivier Farmer, co-founder of PRISM

Rousseau spent two months at the mission's Patricia Mackenzie Pavilion and now lives in the city's Plateau neighbourhood, in a triplex overseen by the shelter.

She receives continued support from social workers, and four or five times a week, she attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

In March or April, she's expecting to move into a place of her own.

"I take it one day at a time," she said.

Successful transition

PRISM started as a pilot project in 2013, with 10 beds at the Old Brewery Mission.

It has since expanded to two additional shelters — the Welcome Hall Mission and Accueil Bonneau — and, this year, it will offer a total of 42 beds.

Roughly 60 per cent of participants in PRISM successfully complete the program, which involves a six- to eight-week stay in a shelter and transition into long-term housing.

The program costs about $3,000 per year, per person, according to PRISM.

By comparison, the social cost of homelessness has been pegged at as much as $50,000 per year, per person, when the toll on a range of public services, most notably health care, is taken into account.

On Wednesday, Bell announced a $300,000 donation to the program, which is also funded by the federal and provincial governments.

Dr. Olivier Farmer, a psychiatrist at Hôpital Notre-Dame and co-founder of PRISM, has an office at the Old Brewery Mission. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Dr. Olivier Farmer, a psychiatrist at Hôpital Notre-Dame and co-founder of PRISM, said the program was developed in response to the "utter failure of conventional services."

The stigmatization that homeless people face in hospitals, for instance, means they weren't getting the care they needed, he said.

"I compare PRISM to a little like a car that's in the ditch. You need get a truck and pull them back onto the road," he said.

"At one point what happens is people find their feet, and they can start living their life again."

More beds needed

Farmer cautioned there is still plenty to work to do, with many people still spending their days — and sometimes nights — on the city's streets and in Metro stations.

A recent homeless count found more than 3,000 people outside on a single night, although some experts say that number is likely far higher.

"The ambition is that homelessness ceases to become this enormous social problem," Farmer said.

Officials in Montreal don't know exactly how many people are living on the streets, but the number is in the thousands. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Matthew Pearce, CEO and president of the Old Brewery Mission, cautioned that while the program has been a success, the problem isn't entirely under control.

"What we need is more reliable sources of funding," he said. "We're going to need to open more beds. The demand is there for more beds."

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.


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