A cutting-edge national experiment in Vancouver that aimed to improve the lives of those with mental illness through housing was supposed to come to an end on March 31.
But the provincial government has agreed to pay for a six-month extension for the once homeless participants who have been living at the former Bosman Hotel downtown – in part, because no one has been able to find them suitable supportive housing for the past year.
“We’ve extended the funding even further,” said Andrew MacFarlane, director of mental health and addictions at Vancouver Coastal Health. “And it is the same level of services that has occurred during the previous extension.”
Initially, one hundred participants got rooms and a support program at the Bosman when the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s $110-million At Home study began in 2011. That funding ran out in March 2013 but, at the eleventh hour, the federal government agreed to fund the building for one more year.
Since then, 56 of the more stable residents have since moved out to social-housing units around the city. But for the remaining 45, many of whom have complex mental health issues that require daily support, no one has been able to guarantee where they will go in spite of a year to find them places. So anxiety levels are high despite government reassurances.
“You know, we had a suicide attempt a month ago that I would say…at least one of the causal factors in that was the uncertainty,” said Jeff West, building manager at the Bosman.
Several different buildings, like the province’s transitional housing at the former Biltmore Hotel on Fraser Street, or a new social-housing project due to open soon on 1134 Burrard St., were being considered as relocation options.
But, even though those buildings were acquired or built for homeless people, they still screen for the most stable residents. Getting a room is extremely competitive, and only a lucky few are accepted.
The Biltmore received over 1,000 applications for its 95 rooms, which are just beginning to be occupied now.
West believes the remaining Bosman residents will need low-barrier housing that can accommodate some unpredictable behaviour.
These residents require “housing providers that tolerate zany behaviour, active drug use, who tolerate active involvement in the survival sex trade, and not everybody does that,” he said.
The shortage of suitable housing is being exacerbated by renovations planned for 13 residential hotels in the Downtown Eastside that are part of the province’s housing stock for some of the city’s poorest residents. In the coming months, the Beacon and Sunrise hotels and the Roosevelt Bank Building will be getting their upgrades, which will take another 100 homes off the market temporarily.
So West and the B.C. Ministry of Housing are placing their bets on a 139-unit project being built at 111 Princess St. that’s set to be complete by May. It has the potential to provide the level of support Bosman residents need.
And as openings at Princess Street and other locations become available, Vancouver Coastal Health says it will work with the Bosman to place residents based on their appropriate needs.
“We’ll be supporting the transition planning for each of these clients until August 31, 2014,” said MacFarlane.
While West is not certain that everyone will get in to the Princess, he believes it is the most promising option for finding the remaining residents homes.
“That’s the silver lining to the cloud that is the lack of housing stock,” said West. “There are these new projects opening up.”
A year-long struggle
But the uncertainty over their housing future isn’t the only thing that has weighed down the last 45.
When the federal government reduced funding for the project in March 2013, residents at the Bosman experienced a drastic reduction in support services.
“Instead of doctors being here 24/7, they were here once a week. Instead of three meals a day, it went down to one meal a day,” said Nick Wennington, a resident of the Bosman.
“And possibly a second meal, when there was funding for it,” he added.
For Dave Maddogg, who was in charge of cooking meals for the residents each morning, the cuts were especially hard. It meant that his job as a cook was axed.
“I miss cooking,” he said. “It gave me something to get up for.”
The money for the meals was discontinued by the federal government last March. The province, which is paying for the six-month housing extension, also will not be paying for a meal service.
According to Employment and Social Development Canada, the federal government has already met its responsibilities in preventing the residents from going homeless after it provided last year’s extension. Now it’s up to the provincial government.
“BC Housing agreed to transition participants housed under the At Home/Chez Soi demonstration project in Vancouver into existing provincial housing programs and services,” said spokeswoman Pamela Wong in a statement.
In the coming months, West says, a lot of work has to be done, but he is holding out hope that plans will fall into place, and that no one will be back out on the street.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,“ he said. “Hope for the best and expect for the worst.”