If you don’t know where you’re going to sleep, it’s tough to focus on other pressing matters, such as addiction, employment or improving your health.
That’s the idea behind Housing First in Regina, which will receive approximately $700,000 dollars in federal money in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Since it began in earnest just over a year ago, 32 clients who are chronically homeless have been given housing, as well as support for whatever else they need once they have a roof over their heads.
Bob Kastrukoff beams as he gives a tour of his modest one-bedroom apartment just north of Dewdney Avenue in North Central Regina.
“I slept in banks, honestly, I did for the last few years.” – Bob Kastrukoff, Housing First client
“This is my new home for the past five months and it flew by, it’s been great. I think it’s right-on, it’s a beautiful, beautiful place,” he says, adding a chuckle. “If my vacuum was working I would have had it even cleaner.”
Kastrukoff says it could have been 20 years since he had a place to clean, and admits life wasn’t always easy before he got the keys to his apartment last August.
‘I’M GETTING TOO OLD TO LAY ON THE CEMENT IN 40 BELOW’
“I kicked the streets for a lot of days and drank a lot of the downtown juice,” Kastrukoff says, admitting he’s struggled with alcohol. “I slept in banks, honestly, I did for the last few years… [the new apartment] worked out good, I’m getting too old to lay on the cement in 40 below anyway,” he says.
Kastrukoff gestures underneath his TV to a shelf of new books, some of which were gifts from police officers who visited to congratulate him on the home. He says he often had run-ins with police and had regularly spent time in cells during the years when he was living on the streets, sometimes even twice in one day, on a bad day.
“If you’re on bad behaviour, too intoxicated; downtown cells. And you get released, it’s always a charge. Public intoxication, or open liquor or whatever,” he says. “It wasn’t pleasant. Of course, nobody likes to go to jail, and I’m one of them, I don’t like to go to jail.”
Kastrukoff smiles and says his caseworker recently told him he hasn’t been in jail since August, a feat which he says feels “pretty right-on”.
“Anecdotally, I would say that yes, we’ve noticed that Housing First has made a difference,” said Regina Police Inspector Lorilee Davies.
She says police interventions often end up becoming a kind of fail-safe for people who are chronically homeless in Regina, with nowhere else to go. The Regina Police service has noticed a decrease in calls about unwanted guest calls and public intoxication arrests in the downtown area since the program began.
The police performed an analysis based on one client who was frequently in contact with police before they were given a home. Over a two-year period, that person was the subject of 139 calls for service and was arrested 105 times. After they received a home, that same person was the subject of just seven calls for service within seven months.
Davies says police are currently studying statistics in relation to more Housing First clients to better understand what changes they’re seeing.
“But like I said, that’s one person and we’ve definitely, definitely seen a change,” she said.
DETOX CENTRE, HOSPITALS ALSO SEE CHANGES
The Detox Centre in Regina says their most frequent visitors stayed in brief detox nearly every night. But this past winter, around ten of those frequent visitors now have homes, and aren’t staying over nearly as often.
“It wouldn’t be out of reach to suggest that some of them attended our facility over 300 visits,” said Troy Neiszner, manager of the addiction treatment program for the Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region. “We haven’t had to turn people away this winter, whereas in the past there were nights where we had to call mobile crisis because beds are full.”
“You need to actually meet some of those basic fundamental needs of a person before you can get them invested in some of those health issues.” – Sheila Anderson, Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region
The health region has a team called Connecting to Care that works to find out why its most complex clients have so many visits to emergency rooms and overnight stays in acute care, and works to fix it.
Sheila Anderson is the executive director of urban primary health services for the health region. She says the team works to connect those clients with community agencies, including those that administer Housing First.
Sometimes, the most frequent visitors to the hospital need very basic help, including finding a family doctor or gaining access to services at the food bank, or the stability of having somewhere to call home.
“If people don’t have a home and don’t have food, those are basic necessities of life. So when you say you want to help that person take care of blood sugars, they’re actually just concerned with where they’re going to sleep tonight, and where they’re going to eat,” she said.
“So you need to actually meet some of those basic fundamental needs of a person before you can get them invested in some of those health issues that they have,” Anderson added.
While the acute care and emergency visits can count as some of the most expensive aspects of health care in for the health region, Anderson says the program is aimed at improving lives, rather than just saving dollars.
SUCCESS ABUNDANT, MONEY IS NOT
Kendra Giles is the Housing First Supervisor at Phoenix Residential Society.
She sees the program’s progress so far as nothing short of ‘phenomenal’, given that 32 people have received housing to date through Housing First. Each client says their quality of life has improved within a year of the program. She says some clients have ‘graduated’ out of needing help from the program, gained education, or sought employment. There have been no cases of ‘failures’ or people for whom the program just didn’t work.
However, Giles says while the current funding from the federal government is ‘a good start’, she says it’s not nearly enough to end homelessness. She cites that other areas are combating homelessness through Housing First with money from all three levels of government, rather than just one.
“The funding has definitely allowed for a significant decrease in homelessness, particularly for those that are the most vulnerable and ‘hard-to-house’ but it is nowhere near putting a big enough dent in homelessness for those that are still on the streets struggling every day,” she said, adding that 97 more people in Regina are currently on an active waiting list for Housing First.
Blair Roberts is the Director of Homelessness Partnering at the YMCA of Regina, which administers the money for Housing First. He says the $700,000 for 2017-2018’s Housing First efforts in the city is not expected to extend past this year, and is likely to return closer to $400,000 next year.
“It’s pretty rare that you’ll have something like this that everyone can kind of agree is a good thing. The challenge is, is it resourced enough? And the answer right now is no,” Roberts said.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF POLICE VISIT
For Bob Kastrukoff, it’s nice to know police see him in a different light than they did when he was on the streets. He can be sure of that, because they’ve visited his new apartment.
“He offered them snacks and juice, and showed such pride in his residence,” said Insp. Lorilee Davies. “They were just so happy, number one that he was doing so well and had such pride in his place… it’s really good for our officers to see that, too.”
“They gave me those books right there and some other home-warming gifts, very, very nice actually,” Kastrukoff said. “But they’re impressed with my place. One cop said ‘Hey Bob, you’ve got to show my wife how to clean the house.’ I said, it’s easy, don’t let it build up this high. Just do it daily, and it’s a done deal.”
with files from CBC’s the Morning Edition