How to house the homeless: Molly – when things go right

Molly Boyce spent more than 15 years on the streets and lived in Shelter House's managed alcohol program. Now she works for Shelter House and plans to study nursing. What went right for her? One factor, she said, was a brush with the law that connected her to the John Howard Society.

The final instalment of CBC Thunder Bay's 5-part series on homelessness looks at something the city does well

Margaret (Molly) Boyce, right, poses for photographs with fellow valedictorian Joseph Meeseetawageesic after speaking to graduates of the Aboriginal Skills Advancement Program. Boyce spent more than 15 years on the streets of Thunder Bay. A chance encounter with the criminal justice system helped get her off. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

Molly Boyce works at Shelter House, a homeless shelter in Thunder Bay, Ont.

She used to live there.

Boyce spent more than 15 years on the streets and lived in the shelter's residential managed alcohol program.

While there, she said, she had started seeing a psychiatrist and dealing with the lifetime of pain that had given rise to her addictions.

She was starting to feel "stuck" in the managed alcohol program, she said, and was thinking about how to move forward with her life when a set of circumstances unfolded that connected her with the John Howard Society of Thunder Bay and District.

"We were partying in our local hotel here," she said.  "I was in a cast. Actually I was in a wheelchair …  and somebody broke the window, and everybody else ran away, but I couldn't.  So I …was the one that ended up charged for the broken window."

"I really didn't break that window," she added, laughing.

Boyce entered a diversion program, which allows people to avoid criminal records if they follow a rehabilitation program.

'She was hard with me ... but that hardness got me where I am'

John Howard, she said, gave her the structure to help meet its conditions, though at first, the transition was hard, and she nearly wound up back on the street.

"I kept sneaking in drunk, but little did I know that they knew," she said.  "But they helped me get into detox, and when I came back out, they helped me, and that's when I knew I had to create another plan because that wasn't working.

"They assisted, you know, they encouraged me in whatever it is that I wanted," she added.  "They gave me more chances than they should've I guess."

Boyce graduated from high school in March of this year.

She plans to study to become a nurse in her home community of Eabametoong.

John Howard, she said, provide both kindness and toughness to help her along the way.

"That lady there.  She really helped me out eh?" she said.  "She was hard with me, you know?  But that hardness got me where I am.  She had a good talk with me.  She just saw that I could be a very good person."

Thunder Bay's systems for helping people involved with the criminal justice system, particularly those coming out of prison, are a bright light in the city's battle against homelessness, according to Bonnie Krysowaty, a social researcher with the Lakehead Social Planning Council.

Bonnie Krysowaty is a social researcher with the Lakehead Social Planning Council. She said Thunder Bay's supports for people coming out of prison are an example of what the city does right in the struggle against homelessness. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

One homeless man told CBC he was thinking of going to jail in order to access the coordinated social services frequently offered to inmates awaiting release.

A key player in the delivery of those services is the John Howard Society, an organization mandated to serve those involved in the criminal justice system.

It operates a 47-room residence and rehabilitation program at its facility on Syndicate Avenue.

"We start with creating stability, making sure the basic needs are provided, so that includes housing," said acting executive director Kevin Haynen, describing the services his organization offers to candidates deemed suitable for its program.

"Once stability can be maintained for a period following that, the way we proceed is to create with the individual a plan, setting goals.  What would they like to achieve on the other side of their involvement with the program?"

Once those goals are set, the society works to help clients achieve them, Haynen said.

One of its strengths, he added, is connecting people to other social services and teaching them how to do that on their own.

"That's a really important part," Haynen said, "practicing that process of acquiring services. That is required because one of the biggest barriers is a lot of times just lack of confidence for individuals.  It's very easy to say, 'You just need to go do this, this, and this,' but that can be very intimidating or just unrealistic for people given their situation."

Kevin Haynen, the acting executive director of the Thunder Bay district John Howard Society, said John Howard's program helps clients set goals for the future and connect with the services that will help them achieve them. (Gord Ellis / CBC)

John Howard works with traditional social service agencies like mental health and addictions services, he said.  But lately, it's also found success offering less conventional therapies.

This spring, it hired a recreational therapist, and staff have noticed a huge benefit in offering the service.

"All of a sudden, there's a level of confidence in a person that we've never seen before, a feeling of a connection to this community, that pride in themselves and pride in their place in the community," Heynen said.

The John Howard Society does sometimes take in clients who have not had contact with the criminal justice system he added, and not all individuals coming out of prison are suitable for its program, which is focused on rehabilitation.

Not everyone is ready for that, he said.

Some people also have complex issues that exceed the abilities of the society's staff to manage.

But the organization is doing its best to work with other agencies and break down barriers so that more people can access its program, Haynen said.

Asked why all homeless people can't have access to the kind of holistic support system that John Howard provides, he said it's a matter of resources.

But when asked who is responsible for the lack of resources, Heynen pointed the finger at society itself, rather than at a government or agency.

"It's really easy to not pay attention if it's not something that exists within your everyday life," he said. "But I think that it really falls to all of us as citizens to really look at and have an understanding about what's happening in our communities and to contribute and be part of the solution."