Prince Albert, Sask., housing-first program offers clients a way out of the cold

Homeward Bound grew out of the provincial Housing First strategy, and manager Dave Hobden took the title literally - give clients a home first and figure out the rest later.

'We're just going to wing it,' Homeward Bound's manager said when the program started 3 years ago

Members of the Kindred Spirit program at the Homeward Bound building occupy the third floor, reserved for families and children. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Brian Henderson hands a screwdriver to his supervisor, Chad Wiggins, and gives a wide smile. He's not used to being the centre of attention in this way, or singled out for his successes.

"My dad lived here and I was supposed to come sleep over for the weekend," he said.

"That was a year ago."

Henderson came to Homeward Bound — a program in Prince Albert, Sask., that works with chronically and episodically homeless clients, who live in the program's 40-unit apartment building and in individual homes — from a stint couch-surfing in the Battlefords.

He had two pairs of jeans and two T-shirts when he moved in. He was also using drugs and alcohol and "never really wanted to get better," until he met the staff at Homeward Bound, who treated him with empathy, and were patient with the 21-year-old. 

The idea behind Homeward Bound is to get people experiencing homelessness into a stable housing situation first, and then focus on addressing the factors that have led to their homelessness.

Brian Henderson was supposed to stay for a weekend at the Homeward Bound complex. He stayed much longer and now pays his own rent, and has been hired as a staff member. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

For Henderson, that included being offered a suite in the 40-unit apartment building, with addiction and health supports onsite and staff acting both as support workers and superintendents.

He found a mentor in Chad Wiggins and started to learn to fix windows and doors, and do basic plumbing and electrical work. More importantly, he learned life skills — like how to diffuse a situation.

"Stuff I never learned growing up."

He's now a part-time maintenance worker, and spends hours moving furniture for others, on their way in or out of the Homeward Bound building. He's conscious of his influence on people in more vulnerable situations.

"[With] the transition between client and staff, I had a bunch more responsibilities — the clients look up to me. I had to straighten out my life a lot more and become a better person, not just for myself, but for the people watching, too. So if I can do it, they can do it, too."

'We're just going to wing it'

Homeward Bound grew out of the provincial Housing First strategy, and manager Dave Hobden took the strategy's name literally — give clients a home first, and figure out the rest later.

He was concerned about developing a program the community would buy into.

"I said, 'We're just going to wing it,' and literally that's what we did," he said, as he sat in the office suite of the program's first full apartment complex, three years later.

By all accounts, it worked.

Dave Hobden is the manager of Homeward Bound. He says the initial approach to Homeward Bound was 'we're just going to wing it' — and he says that's paid off. (Bridget Yard/CBC )

Clients in the program are placed in housing based on need, with 119 currently in supportive housing. Another 55 people in the community meet the criteria for placement, and are on a waiting list.

Homeward Bound is based on a harm-reduction model, so clients are housed regardless of their lifestyle. 

High-risk individuals, for example, may drink or take drugs in their suites, and the program provides supports to curtail destructive behaviour.

When you think of reduction in crime, stays at emergency rooms and hospital stays, it's a huge impact financially.- Dave Hobden, manager of Homeward Bound in Prince Albert

Women and their children, meanwhile, live on the third floor of Homeward Bound's apartment building, and are served by the Kindred Spirit program. It started when Hobden and his colleagues identified a gap in the system early on in the program.

"A lot of the homeless women were having babies and then that mad cycle where they'd have the baby, work on their addictions, and when the baby went into care, they spiralled," said Hobden.

Kindred Spirit allows women to retain custody of their children, while providing parenting supports.

Staff found another gap in their service in working with clients with mental health needs, and now have specific services for clients struggling with mental illness and congruent disorders who also use drugs and alcohol. Dignity and quality of life are of utmost importance in that program, Hobden said.

Homeward Bound also works with aging clients, several of whom need intensive supports like nursing and mobility aids. These clients can't be put into care homes because of their addictions, so Homeward Bound is in the process of acquiring use of a more suitable building, with a ramp or elevator.

The YWCA and Homeward Bound are studying the needs of sexually exploited women in Prince Albert, another group the program serves, but not effectively at this point, Hobden said.

"Sexually exploited women do well up to a point, and then they almost plateau. We need specific programming for these women to break that cycle," said Hobden.

Cost and return

Hobden estimates the cost of Homeward Bound to funders — the federal government and the provincial Ministry of Social Services — is approximately $500 per client.

"When you think of reduction in crime, stays at emergency rooms and hospital stays, it's a huge impact financially," he said.

Homeward Bound is able to house the city's homeless because of a partnership with Avenue Living, a Calgary-based property management firm.

When Homeward Bound approached Avenue Living, the property manager's building on Branion Drive was less than half full and some tenants were several months in arrears on their rent payments. Hobden and his colleague, Rob Dunlop, made a deal with the company.

"We'll provide 100 per cent occupancy and all the costs with cleaning and update of the building, if you reduce the rate," said Hobden.

"It has been a win-win for both of us."

Homeward Bound recently took over a second building, identical to the first right next door to the first building. A third building on the street needs to be renovated, and will soon be added to Homeward Bound's facilities.

Following the rules

The front door of the Homeward Bound apartment building requires a code to get in, and once inside, visitors are greeted by a homemade poster showing a red bandana and sunglasses.

The building is monitored by video cameras and hoods are prohibited, as are sunglasses and bandanas, which obscure a visitor's face. Gang colours are also a concern.

The poster was created by clients, not staff. They also have a self-imposed soft curfew.

The program has few rules, other than those clients implement themselves.

"We want to help you have a good quality of life, but if you're drinking or drugging that is your choice," said Hobden.

Trafficking of drugs, and bringing harm or risk to others, are also prohibited.

A client of Homeward Bound in Prince Albert relaxes in one of the apartment building's common areas. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Days in the Homeward Bound program are somewhat structured, and social areas of the building are open until 11 p.m. Every evening, staff cook a meal to be shared between clients and those on shift.

The meal helps to create a feeling of community, according to Hobden. He said some clients "graduate" to unsupported housing but return, because they miss the social aspect of Homeward Bound.

Kindred Spirit

Brian Henderson, a self-described "little shit," moved into Homeward Bound's building last year, while babies slept upstairs.

The juxtaposition isn't lost on staff.

"Our doors are locked at a certain time, and you need a code to get in," said Tammy Popoff. She runs the Kindred Spirit program, which she calls her "dream job."

The third floor has stricter rules than the first and second and has higher security than the rest of the building, but is a treasured part of the Homeward Bound community.

It's giving a lot of these people a second chance.- Homeward Bound client and maintenance worker Brian Henderson

"They watch out for each other," said Popoff.

On movie nights, a family film is shown upstairs, while action flicks are shown downstairs. Clients move between floors.

They move between programs, too. Homeward Bound clients are eligible for Kindred Spirit if they have young children or are pregnant.

Once a Kindred Spirit mother and child have completed the program, they may be placed in one of Homeward Bound's homes, and will continue to access supports.

"It's giving a lot of these people a second chance," said Henderson. He and his supervisor are fixing doors today, and moving furniture for another new client.

Henderson is in the process of applying to university nearby, and is trying to get his driver's licence.

"After high school I got into the drug and drinking scene. My life potential went downhill and I didn't really start thinking about my future until I started working for these guys," he said, taking a break from the grunt work.

He looks down, bites his lip and smiles again, so wide that he squints.

"It's definitely worth it."