A rare success in the battle against homelessness
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun May 20 2012. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
A decade ago, a New York activist brought a controversial new approach to housing to Toronto.
Roseanne Haggerty argued that it was a waste of taxpayers’ money to cycle the homeless endlessly through the shelter system. Cities should use public funds to get them into stable housing as quickly as possible and tackle their problems — mental illness, addictions, criminal charges — once they have a place to live.
The organization she founded, Common Ground, had converted two derelict Manhattan hotels into attractive residences for the homeless using a combination of private and public funding.
Haggerty’s proposition divided housing advocates. Most groups — the National Housing and Homelessness Network, the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, Toronto Anti-Poverty — wanted nothing to do with it. They insisted governments should open more shelters, build more public housing and provide more services for street people. A sole organization, the Homes First Society, and a few citizens embraced it.
South of the border, the housing-first philosophy spread rapidly under U.S. housing czar Philip Mangano, an early convert. He visited Toronto in 2006 and delivered a high-energy sales pitch.
Housing activists were unmoved. But city officials were listening. Then-mayor David Miller used it as the basis for Toronto’s Streets to Homes program. Brian Smith was also listening. He is chief executive of Woodgreen Community Services, one of the largest social service agencies in the city. In fact, he had his eye on a promising site.
It was the 107-year-old Edwin Hotel in Riverdale. It wasn’t derelict, but it had fallen on hard times. The once-vibrant railway hotel had tried to survive as a nightclub, failed and become a seedy rooming house over a tavern.
Smith tried several times to persuade the owner to sell it. He was repeatedly rebuffed. But in 2008 he succeeded. Woodgreen launched an ambitious fundraising campaign and began the makeover. Using private donations, in-kind contributions (flowers, bedding, pots and pans) and every source of government funding available, it transformed the Edwin from a neighbourhood embarrassment into an attractive residence for homeless men over 55. The cost was $3.8 million.
It reopened in 2010. It is now a source of local pride, an architectural gem and a safe, impeccably maintained home for the 28 men who live there.
Phil Sturm was one of the first residents. His life went off the rails in his 50s. He lost his job as a youth and family worker, his marriage fell apart, his former wife died of cancer and he couldn’t support his two children. His savings ran out and he wound up in a condemned rooming house. He sank into a deep depression. “I had one foot on the street,” he recalls.
That was when Woodgreen stepped in. It found him temporary quarters and offered him a furnished room with cooking facilities and on-site counselling at the Edwin when it opened. Over the past two years Sturm has turned his life around, regained his sense of self-worth and developed the strength to live on his own. He just moved into an independent apartment a few blocks away.
“Phil had a lot of skills,” said Pablo Escobar, manager of the Edwin. He also got a lot of help. As a participant in Woodgreen’s First Step to Home program, he had access to two case managers, a nurse practitioner and three personal support workers. A doctor came on Thursdays, psychiatrists from the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health were available and there was someone to talk to, even at 3 a.m. When he wanted privacy, he could close his door and no one would disturb him.
As a “graduate,” he comes back to help prepare his peers for the transition. Some won’t do as well as he did. Some will always need supportive housing. Some will go straight from the Edwin to a nursing home at the end of their four-year stay. Woodgreen has an individualized housing plan for each man.
It hasn’t had to implement many of them yet. Twenty of the original 28 residents are still there. They volunteer eagerly for cleaning, yard work, odd jobs or small repairs. They don’t consider these chores menial. “It’s their home,” Escobar explains. “They want to take care of it.”
He is a wholehearted advocate of the housing-first philosophy. Getting people into a place where they don’t have to worry about being beaten up or sent to jail allows them to start healing, he says. Warehousing them in overnight shelters, at a cost of $50 to $70 a night, achieves nothing.
A project like the Edwin is not cheap or easy. It requires an unprecedented degree of public-private collaboration, a large upfront investment, community support and a social agency that can deliver what it promises.
But the ideological debate is over. It is hard to argue with success.
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