by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
We all do! The benefits of helping someone move from intractable poverty to feeling some hope about being able to support her/himself spread through the society. It’s not just that that person might actually cost the public purse less and even contribute taxes. It’s that hospital costs, jail costs, social services costs can dip. AND for those subject to that darned compassion, they can sleep a little better knowing that some others are less miserable.
We agree that a roof over one’s head is a necessity to a manageable life. However the problems many have in managing their lives don’t disappear once a home is in place. Carrots and sticks (incentives) are sometimes held out ($100 monthly for TTC costs to volunteer sites) or more often deprivation, threats, or penalties (cuts to benefits, removing ODSP status).
I posit that ultimately, hope and trust have to replace the core shame and depression that grow out of having lost too much or from never having had enough. Attempts to force or impose change falter and fizzle out because they are coming from outside. Building hope and trust happens within the hurt person and develops over time. Helping this to happen is the Housing Support Worker’s job and I’ll try to set my conviction in context.
Good Supportive Housing and the Tenants with Whom I’ve Been Engaged
In the Tea Party parlance of the new Toronto, I’d like my elected officials to direct a chunk of my tax dollars toward good supportive housing because I believe it leads to positive change in poverty. Slow, but real.
I haven’t seen all the forms and variations of supportive housing – wish I had, because most are inspiring. I will outline the qualities of the ones I’ve seen or been involved with, that help turn lives around. Fundamental is that Housing Support Workers are located on site and available to tenants for most days of the week.
The tenants have come from living on the street, or have been severely under-housed. Recovery from serious addictions and/or the sex trade is a task for many. Some are recently reunited with children because of now being ‘clean’ and having housing. Mental illness and/or personality disorders, many undiagnosed, abound. Histories of trauma are common – the untimely death of loved ones, abusive relationships, loss of children to social services or previous partners, permanent injury, refugee status, escape from war and persecution. When they arrive, none have income beyond what social services or various compensation packages provide.
Starting at the End – the Common Factors of Good Supportive Housing
Fundamental to successful supportive housing is safety. Whatever form of dwelling into which he or she is moving – a house with a handful of tenants, a larger group home, or an apartment building – the tenant needs to feel safe. Specifically, 1) the building has to be secure from unwanted intrusion of anyone with a history of violence, 2) the individual units or rooms have to allow the refusal of guests whom the tenant thinks pose a personal danger, 3) there has to be some form of security presence, hired or a trusted tenant, and 4) management has to take an interest in any incident that threatens a tenant’s sense of security.
The management and staff have to be trustworthy, and prepared to invest time in building trusting relationships with tenants. For this to happen depends on a big IF: IF there is stable funding for stable staffing. Having the same Management and Workers around for years makes a good difference. The treasure that is any tenant’s time and emotional energy invested in deciding to open up to staff is wasted if the staff keeps changing. And there are only so many chances before the tenant firmly clams shut.
The previous building blocks lead to the third – opportunities for tenants to connect with other people who are also recovering from the street and to staff who want to engage with them. All by him or herself, no one moves past isolation and being “stuck”.
What do the Supports Look Like?
If these are the building blocks, what form does good supportive housing look like? That can depend on the personality, working philosophy, and gifts of people in charge, or the physical layout of the place, or the particular demographic. More children? More elderly? A common challenge like addiction or diagnosed mental illness? Are shared meals a designated part of the program? The point is that there isn’t any one model that would fit all. Tenants and staff build the community.
The supports I’m speaking of come with the housing, not with the tenant. Support from sponsors or social workers can be critical but don’t replace what is offered by the day by day consistency on location. When the person moves in, a staff member welcomes, helps with settling in and obtaining furniture if the tenant so wishes, checks in regularly in the early weeks with low-key information on how to work the laundry facilities (especially with front loaders!), how to handle garbage (big factor in not upsetting neighbours), identifying signs of vermin and who to tell about it, fire alarms and fire drills, security details. This can be all pretty new for a tenant.
As time passes, as many as a third of the tenants in the building don’t indicate a desire to move on, to become more independent. Some stay attached to the ethos and values of the street. Housing Support Workers gets to know who wants something further: medical care, schooling, connecting with agencies for help with specific problems (immigration, children, other legal problems, vision and hearing – whatever). Sometimes just going with someone to a tough appointment is the extent of the help wanted or accepted. Workers come to learn just how ‘stuck’ some tenants are. For every step forward there might be two back. Self-sabotage recurs. Infinite variations in not breaking out of the poverty mold. But as Workers and tenants hang in, changes do occur.
Toronto Finds Support Too Expensive
The assumption I’m making with all the above may apply less and less to the social housing scene in Toronto. In the past decade, more pressure has been put on all areas of Toronto’s social housing to become more business-like in its goals and operations. Hence, the more endangered is TCHC’s supportive component. A consumer model is in vogue, whereby someone in need goes out and obtains it. Small housing providers are encouraged to “partner” with social agencies, allowing tenants a way to seek out help from an agency. Or to bring with them support workers from others agencies.
There isn’t much doubt that supports are needed. Once properly housed, people who couldn’t manage their lives (being mentally or emotionally weakened) hit the reality of all the other life problems they carried into housing with them. It can take years to sort it through, and all kinds of help toward which they can be guided by a caring Housing Support Worker.
Can We, Should We Sell Supportive Housing to the Public?
The public, particularly ‘taxpayers”, is discouraged by the apparent intractability of poverty and seem tempted to blame it all on addictions, laziness, bad attitudes, personality disorders, poor character. These can all be part of the mix but don’t get at how hard it is to change.
The best bet is real deep-down help that comes about through proximity, contact, human caring, knowledgeable resource people who hang in and who can pluck out of the mystifying huge city those ‘helps’ that will fit the person in need.
What do you think? Can we sell that? Is it worth it? What do you think?