The Doc Project

In a safe, subsidized apartment, this 21-year-old is beginning to imagine his future

Having his own place was all Brian Henderson needed to change direction. He's one of the tenants of Homeward Bound, a new community for the homeless in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Having his own place was all Brian Henderson needed to change direction

Brian Henderson stands in front of a stairwell mural in one of the Homeward Bound apartment buildings in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

By Bridget Yard

Prince Albert is a tough place to be homeless. At 21, Brian Henderson had called the streets of "PA" home for several years. 

The city of 36,000 is known in the province as the gateway to Saskatchewan's north. Every long weekend, cottagers from the south of the province — and larger cities like Regina and Saskatoon — pack up their minivans and pickup trucks and escape the city for a cottage in the woods, or on a lake. They pass through PA and fill up their fuel tanks just as the Prairies give way to forested hills. It's a place of beauty.

It's a Prince Albert that Brian doesn't know very well. "I grew up in PA in a pretty poor family down west," he says.

"Back in my day it was kind of like a rez. Little kids running around everywhere — brown kids everywhere."

Few people believed Brian was Indigenous because of his light skin. His nickname was "Whitey."

Brian Henderson has a plan for the future: to apply to university, get his driver's license, buy a car, and get married. "The simple things," he says. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

At 12, Brian's childhood ended. His mother died of a drug overdose after a decade of being clean.

He was in foster care for a few years, and eventually ended up on the streets of Prince Albert, and in "trapped-out" apartments.

"Dirty, lots of drugs, dirty walls, dirty dishes, you know, you've got your drug utensils everywhere. Stuff like that. A rough living environment. No respect for your household," he said, explaining the term.

Brian's auntie and uncles were still in contact with him, but some were "big-time drug addicts" who would turn tricks in their shared apartment to pay the bills.

Brian began using drugs and alcohol, too.

"You think about getting better all the time, but you can't. You don't know why," he says.

Inside Homeward Bound with Brian Henderson

4 years ago
Duration 0:53
In the small city of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, 120 homeless people have been given housing for less than half the cost of a house in Vancouver or Toronto. The apartments are fully subsidized and, unlike most shelters, you don't need to be clean to get a spot. The project is called "Homeward Bound."

Housing first, support second

Three years ago, Dave Hobden, a long-time social worker, was asked to create a "housing first" program in Prince Albert. 

Housing first is a strategy that recommends housing a client before anything else — before detox, rehab, or mental health services. It also suggests clients be treated with enough dignity and respect to enfranchise them to propose solutions to their own issues, rather than have solutions foisted upon them.

In Prince Albert, the program is called Homeward Bound.

The first Homeward Bound clients were provided with a single-family home, but Hobden soon realized the "white picket fence" model wasn't going to work.
Dave Hodben completes tax forms the old-fashioned way in his office — a converted two-bedroom apartment — at Homeward Bound. (Bridget Yard/CBC)
We found that there was a huge component missing, and that people needed more support and they desired(...) social interaction and things like that.- Dave Hobden, Homeward Bound

So Hobden and his staff created a partnership with Avenue Living, a property management company with three high-vacancy buildings close together.

The tenants living in the buildings were in arrears, sometimes by several months.

Homeward Bound asked Avenue Living to lower the rent of each apartment by a few hundred dollars to make the building accessible to their clients — who receive subsidies from social services and Homeward Bound — and promised to clean up the buildings and ensure rents were paid each month.

The program now has three apartment blocks, with about 90 apartments between them.

Creating community

Homeward Bound tenants are aged 18 to 80, and the program was tasked to provide proper support for everyone's needs.

"There's a segment of our population that, because of the lifestyle, are not able to get into a group home," says Dave Hobden.

"Lifestyle" means the use of drugs and alcohol. Homeward Bound is a harm reduction residence. Tenants can drink and do drugs in their own apartments, as long as they don't traffic within the building.

Clients have other problems, too, like mental health issues, physical deterioration from time spent on the streets, and drug-induced paranoia, which made communal living difficult.
The organizers of Homeward Bound initially thought they'd only need one building to house interested tenants. They've since expanded to three. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Instead of seeing people as problems, housing-first practitioners see the person with problems. "The more we move to treating people with dignity, so they can have housing, privacy, safety, food, the better they will be and the better it is for communities," says Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

Homeward Bound runs on less than $500,000 a year. Police visits to the apartments are down. The clients in the program rarely sleep in jail cells anymore, since police have a place to take them if they get into trouble.

"For the most complex, hardcore homeless people, for every 10 dollars you spend on housing first, (there's) over 22 dollars in saving to the homelessness system, but also the healthcare and criminal justice systems," says Gaetz.
The third floor of Homeward Bound's first building is reserved for a program called Kindred Spirit, which aims to keep mothers and their children together. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Of the 300 people identified as homeless in Prince Albert's last count, 120 have been housed by Homeward Bound. Two years ago, Brian Henderson became one of those clients.

Full circle

Brian found himself at Homeward Bound after his estranged father, a resident, asked him to come and visit him there. His father began drinking after months of being sober, and was sent back to prison. But Brian decided to stay.

"A couple of the managers really got involved and asked me about my problems, and they really talked to me. And you know, that's all I needed, was just a good, stiff talking-to."

His first few weeks were filled with partying and using, but then Brian started working with one of the caretakers of the building. He was eventually hired by Homeward Bound as a handyman.
Homeward Bound tenants have created their own set of rules to keep everyone in the building safe. Saskatchewan's gangs sometimes wear coloured bandanas, and the sunglasses rule is to keep people from sneaking in incognito. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Despite his young age, other clients look to Brian for guidance.

"I'm just like a friend to them. And you also have to be stern. Anything that comes up with drugs and alcohol, as a staff member, you need to say 'Yo, there's a higher road.'" 

Brian has also started to imagine the road he will take in a few years.

"Hopefully I'll have a car by then — a vehicle and my license, you know. Maybe get a house or something and get a girlfriend or wife and have a kid," he says.

Seriously, I just want some stability. Not having to worry every day about drugs or alcohol.- Brian Henderson

He's on his way, with the support of Dave Hobden and the rest of the staff at Homeward Bound. They're colleagues now.

Brian hopes to apply to university in the fall, to take Native Studies. He also has younger siblings to mentor and keep out of trouble. He looks forward to it all.

"I feel like I can actually grow again and actually experience life again," he says.

Listen to the documentary "For the homeless, homes first" by clicking the Listen link at the top of the page, or download and subscribe to our podcast.

About the producer

Bridget Yard is a CBC journalist from northern Ontario working in Saskatoon, SK. She spent eight years as an honourary Maritimer, studying at St Thomas University in Fredericton, and working as a reporter in Fredericton, Saint John, and Bathurst, New Brunswick. She has a love for rural reporting and feature stories. Follow her work at @YardCBC.

This documentary was edited by Julia Pagel, Alison Cook and Kalli Anderson.