Canada, site visits and one of the most amazing weekends of my life!

11 October 2016

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Lois and Me

So I flew from Chicago, to Houston to Edmonton as a result of a flight cancellation. I did not even realise how much of a detour this was…geography has never been my strong point 😉 I arrived and my Air BnB is the best yet. I feel so at home here.

On Friday morning Lois Gander my host picked me up…. to say my wardrobe failed me is an understatement. I was freezing and looked like the typical unprepared traveller! Anyway Renee the amazing woman from HomeTrust who I am going out for Bison and wine with later had arranged the most amazing site visits for the day.

First stop was Ambrose Place which is a housing first approach to provide housing and support for individuals of indigenous descent. Martin showed us around the 42 units they provide along with addictions counselling, peer support, support from recreational workers, 3 elders, 4 independent living support workers and triage. When they first opened they had over 600 applications to work through and they had to pick the most vulnerable. The gender split is about 50/50 which I was pleased to hear. There has been evaluations of this project and whereas each individual was costing the province on average around $100,000 a year on court, short term homeless stays, health issues, and emergency room visits this project costs $27,000 per person per year so a massive saving and almost all of their residents have maintained their accommodation. Whilst I was there I had the privilege to take part in a smudging ceremony with Carola and one of the elders. This was a very spiritual experience and Carola advised that this helps calm and centre residents when they are going through a difficult patch. Perhaps the thing that stood out most for me is that they have a harm reduction approach to their residents. They have a managed alcohol programme so alcohol is not completely banned as they realise this is not realistic expectation. So instead all alcohol is declared to staff and residents are allowed two beers at first and then another one every 2 hours – a total of six. Their way of life is based on four rules which I love….Kindness, Honesty, Sharing and Strength.

Next stop, Drewe at E4C who also runs a housing first service which includes a Shelter Exit Tem (SET) which delivers rapid rehousing for men and women. The programme is six months but this has some flexibility and at assessment point they use the VISPDAT/ SPDAT created by Iain De Jung. Drewe explained that much of the work they do is around finances, which made me think of Nicola Sharpe my dear friend and amazing colleague who is leading the way in UK on this matter and I am seeing in Melbourne! Whoop!

They adhere to the Critical Time Intervention model:

  • Phase one – Transitional (2 months – intense support)
  • Phase two – Trying out (2 months – support and signposting)
  • Phase 3 – Pulling back (2 months – reduce support to create dependence)

And then comes their graduation. I had the pleasure of meeting a lady who is at the graduation stage in her new flat. It was great to hear her lived experience of this programme and extremely humbling to see what this woman has managed to overcome. She said that if ‘it wasn’t for Homeward Trust she does not know where she would have ended up’. She was living in hotels (and I mean horrible ones) with her 3 children for 1 and half years before she got the support she needed from Homeward Trust. Drewe explained that 98% of the properties they use are market rent. In the UK we have this opportunity but even better… we have housing providers that could support these models of rehousing. Some major food for thought and something I know Homeless Link is looking at expanding as I am on one of their working groups in the UK.

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Donna, Me and Marisa

I then went to meet the lovely Donna and Marisa from Capitol Region Housing who provide affordable housing in the Edmonton area. Their function is most like Peabody (who I work for) and Gentoo. However they haven’t undertaken domestic abuse training or anything like DAHA accreditation. We have promised to share this and work with them. They are going to be at the big conference I am doing a key note at tomorrow so I am looking forward to carrying on the conversation.

Last stop was at Wings of Providence and I have never seen a project as comprehensively built for women fleeing domestic abuse. Much of their funding is from private donors and with this they have been able to build self-contained properties. The first transitional scheme built in 2003 has 20 units and then ‘Home next door’ built later which is a move on site and houses women for 2 years has 29 suites. I had a tour of both of these  buildings and honestly it is the best facility I have ever seen. It can serve a total of about 50 families at one time. This brought me back to the conversation I had with the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington DC about the differing costs of transitional housing and rapid rehousing.  The programme is also based on a counselling requirement so any woman on entering the programme is mandated to their programme. If the women feels this is not what she needs then an alternative project is looked for. The scheme also stipulates no male visitors and that alcohol or drugs are not allowed on site. This is similar to the models we have in the UK and this fellowship is highlighting to me how much this can have unintended negative consequences for the most vulnerable women.

Women often abuse drugs and alcohol as a coping strategy to cope with the abuse (it is quite frankly easier to endure abuse under the influence of substances as it numbs you) and perpetrators often force the person they are trying to control to abuse substances to make them dependent on them. So if we understand this why are we screening women on these grounds? The answer of course is safety, lack of funding to support individual’s appropriately and meeting the needs  of other women and children in a community setting where 8 families could be living in the same house. The over arching argument is that we that we need more funding to enable us as a sector to meet the needs of women suffering mulitple disadvantages.

The no men rule has also been perplexing me for some time as I understand the safety implications as it would be hard to know who is a ‘safe’ man and who could be a potential threat and some women in refuge/shelter have said they would find the presence of unknown men scary in the refuge setting. However what  happens if a woman has an older son, or a supportive family member like a brother or a new relationship? In some refuges in the UK they do not allow boys over the age of 12 in their refuges as other residents might find their presence threatening.

These are valid arguments but if this is the case then it is not even more essential that we have a plethora of housing options to suit the specific needs of women and children rather than have blanket policies like ‘no men, no drugs, no alcohol and no complex mental health issues’. It could be argued that housing first models could be more suitable for some families as it seeks to relocate a family back in to the community like E4C do with wrap around support instead of placing families in to communal refuges.

I am not saying I have all the answers and a blog does not do this topic justice but it is a start. This fellowship is allowing me to think outside of the box and for that I am truly grateful as it is allowing challenging discussions that I feel are imperative to continuously improve as a sector.

So after all of this. Lois and I took off for the Canadian Rockies. It was utterly magical. And here are the photos to prove it. img_1076

I am now getting ready for the domestic abuse and housing conference tomorrow. I cannot wait to continue the conversations started on Friday!

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Gudrun Burnet
@GudrunBurnet