'This program saved my life': How housing first model helped woman off the street

In the wake of a disturbing account of one landlord's nightmarish experience with the city's housing first program, one woman is sharing her story about how a similar program took her off the streets and dramatically changed her life.

Kandice Baron defending housing first model after landlord complained of trashed unit

Kandice Baron, 38, says she would 'probably be dead' if it weren't for the housing first program that took her out of a shelter and placed her in her own apartment. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

In the wake of a disturbing account of one landlord's nightmarish experience with the city's housing first program, one woman is sharing her story about how a similar program took her off the streets and dramatically changed her life. 

"I was homeless and this program saved my life," Kandice Baron said Thursday. 

"I'm a few years clean and I know other people that are working now that would never ever be able to hold a job."

Kandice Baron said she likes to draw in her spare time because it helps to clear her mind. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

On Wednesday, CBC News reported landlord Nitin Mehra discovered one of his apartment units was littered with an ocean of garbage, maggots and feces.

His duplex was part of the City of Ottawa Housing First program, which partners homeless people with a landlord to immediately house them in vacant units and provide them with tenant support services, including counselling and weekly visits. 

Mehra said the tenant who trashed the apartment received no support while they lived there and the person is now homeless again. Mayor Jim Watson said Wednesday the conditions in the apartment were "absolutely disgusting" and has asked the city manager to investigate what went wrong.

Mehra holds up a bottle that appears to be filled with urine after his Ottawa duplex was trashed by a homeless man taking part in a city-funded program. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

But Baron, 38, said she had a completely different experience with the housing first model as a tenant and wants others to know if it's done right it can make all the difference. Though her program is run by the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre and not the city-funded program, the approach is much the same. 

Baron said she was distressed when she read the negative headlines targeting the housing first program, but she still has faith in it because it has brought nothing but positivity into her troubled life.

"It's worked so well for me because I had an amazing case worker. We hit it off the first day. Like, we really get along and [she] addressed my concerns and my goals, what I want to do in my life and encouraging me [to] get clean. And I am," she said.

'I'd probably be dead right now'

The program that helped her is funded by the Canadian Mental Health Association, which subsidizes her rent. 

Baron is blunt when talking about what her life would have been like without the program. 

"I'd probably be dead right now," she said. "I know it's sad, but it's true." 

A rough childhood led her down a path of addiction — crystal meth and opioids were her drugs of choice — as early as 13 years old, she said.

She bounced from shelter to shelter, including the Shepherds of Good Hope. While she was there someone recommended she try the housing first program. She saw it as an opportunity, since no landlord would rent to someone like her, struggling with addiction and the law, she said. 

Weekly visits

After getting a place to stay, a case worker from the centre in Sandy Hill would visit her twice a week to check on her and the apartment. The social worker provided support and helped with her recovery.

The pair meet for coffee regularly and though the visits are now only once a week, Baron still cherishes the time they spend together. 

"She's amazing and I love her," she said, with tears swelling in her eyes. 

Baron said she has been clean for over two years and has a place she can finally call home.

Kandice Baron holds a card addressed to her after one year of being clean. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

"It's been amazing knowing that I can go to meet with my addiction worker and I can come home at the end of the day. I'm not going home to a shelter at the end of the day. Like, I can come home, have a shower, close my bathroom door and nobody's watching me pee. Or nobody's watching me shower, and I get to cook my own food. I can go to bed when I want," she said.

She is set to graduate from the housing program this winter and plans to attend Algonquin College. She takes care of a cat named Skittles she rescued and in her spare time she likes to draw.

"I know it's a success. I've seen it with my own eyes," she said. "I've seen people graduate, get full-time jobs, and they're doing really good."

With files from Ashley Burke