I've been thinking about what it must be like to live on the street or beneath a bridge or in a shelter. About being homeless.
I've written about people who have fallen into homelessness before. But not often enough. I guess because deep down I know that I could fall into homelessness. Anyone can. It frightens me, so I stay away.
When I was reporting for The Toronto Sun, I spent several Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings at The Scott Mission where about 400 men and women and young people lined up for a warm Turkey dinner at 10:30 in the morning. I listened to their stories, those who would talk to me. Stories of lay-offs, family break-up, isolation, tough times, the dangers of the street. Often, mental illness, too.
But then I could walk away, go back to my office, write my story and go home.
So you're probably wondering why I'm sleepless over homelessness now. As with many subjects I discuss here, it's pure chance.
Last week, I had a cup of coffee with a friend I hadn't seen in a long time and she mentioned that she's passionate about Mainstay Housing and active on its board. I had never heard of Mainstay and started asking questions about Ontario's largest provider of safe, secure, affordable supportive housing for people with serious mental health challenges.
That was the beginning.
My friend suggested I call Brigitte Witkowski, executive director of Mainstay. I did. On Tuesday, I went down to meet with her. She's a petite firecracker bristling with energy, spark and excitement about Mainstay and the communities it's created and the people now "living the good life" because they have a safe place to call home. It's affordable. Rent geared to income. "If they have no income, we help them get an income – either through Ontario Works or ODSP (the Ontario Disability Support Program)," Brigitte said.
The first thing she did was show me, with obvious pride, a series of framed black and white photographs hanging on the walls of the Mainstay offices. Each picture showed a neat, nicely landscaped, pristine house or low-rise apartment building in Toronto. Mainstay has 867 apartment units housing and supporting about 1,000 people in single or family-sized units in about 40 locations across the city.
Within five minutes, as we walked to a charming new Queen Street West cafe, I discovered that Mainstay isn't about buildings.
It's about people. With a staff of 13 supportive housing workers and a housing access coordinator – all highly skilled social workers trained to engage tenants in "narrative story-telling to determine what a person needs to access and maintain their housing. We ask tenants what will work for them."
"Our ideal tenant is poor and living with a mental illness," Brigitte explained. "If they have an addiction or a physical disability or a developmental delay or they're socially isolated, this is a bonus for us."
The scope and potential for recovery becomes even greater in such cases.
In short, being members of a community and breaking out of patterns of social isolation so they can "create the good life for themselves" as Brigitte calls it.
She used a phrase I've heard before through The Clubhouse movement – Everyone needs "A home. A job. A friend."
This is the first step toward mental health recovery.
For Brigitte, Mainstay is a hub, a cluster of bright possibilities for people. It's all about adult education, responsible living and community development, where tenants can reach their goals for a good life.
Then, something clicked. About seven or eight years ago, at a Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) Courage to Come Back Awards dinner, I heard a woman, an award recipient, speak about her life.
Abandoned as a child and forced fend for herself, she had fallen into homelessness. For years, she was forced to fight the elements, barely surviving in Toronto's parks and streets. For years. Unable to read or write, she couldn't hold a job though she tried repeatedly. Eventually, struggling with a mental illness and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the only homes she ever knew were either boarding houses or more often hospital rooms in psychiatric wards.
"If homeless people don't have mental illness when they start, they certainly do once they get out on the street," she said in her acceptance speech and I've never forgotten it.
Through one person, a caring psychiatrist who reached out to her and helped her connect with Toronto's Clubhouse called Progress Place, Linda was able to find a home in one of Mainstay's apartments where she still lives, has two part-time jobs, served on its Board of Directors for six years and helped start The Dream Team.
Mainstay changed her life.
That's how a person becomes a Mainstay tenant – through any of 23 different agencies in Toronto, including CAMH and the Canadian Mental Health Association.
What intrigued me most about Mainstay is its rights-based approach. The vacancy rate is low.
During Mainstay's last fiscal year – April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009, there were a total of 5 evictions and 199 evictions prevented. "When one of our tenants is evicted, we track where they go and reconnect them back to mental health agencies.
"That means that 204 notices of eviction were given to our tenants based on failing to meet tenant responsibilities defined in the Residential Tenancies Act," Brigitte said. "Most of the failures were paying rent. We also give notices of evictions for interfering with your neighbours' rights or the landlord's rights. We believe we house citizens and adults, not patients. We believe in our tenants' abilities to solve problems. Things happen and people with support and knowledge can find solutions that work.
"We're ruthless about missed rent payments. We live by the Landlord Tenancy Act and serve our tenants with eviction notices immediately," Brigitte said.
At Mainstay, a notice of eviction is an opportunity for follow-up and eviction-prevention, she explained. "We don't want our tenants to feel hopeless and helpless. We know how desperately they want their apartments, so we show them how to connect with their responsibilities and solve problems. We show them there are multiple opportunities and it's often a revelation to them that they can solve their problems, like setting up payment plans if they've missed a rent payment.
Many Mainstay tenants (not "patients" or "clients") may never have rented an apartment before and through respectful, dignified support they learn the responsibilities of tenancy and begin to build self-confidence and self-esteem through their "membership" in their building's communities.
"I believe in adult education, knowledge transfer and community development," Brigitte said. "Everyone deserves access to the good life and if a rent payment is missed, we ask if this is a problem and then come up with a solution. Each tenant signs a housing contract. It's all about choices – and people."
Opportunities. Learning. Recognizing the enormous potential, skills and productivity of our tenants, she says. "We're taking it to the next level and supporting our tenants on their individual journeys of recovery and in their relationship with the mental health world and the social service world."
There are gardening clubs at 21 buildings engaging 112 members. Each club sets its own membership rules and decides what they grow – vegetables, flowers or both. Some share among themselves or with everyone in the buildings. Each club decides. In four buildings, there are food security groups involving 93 members who work with the Daily Food Bank. Some now volunteer there. As well, they volunteer at the Learning and Resource Centre in the Mainstay headquarters.
We ran out of time. I had to leave. But I did, knowing that this won't be my first experience with Mainstay. I'll be back. I want to learn more.
I rushed off to my 3:30 p.m. appointment with Dr. Bob. He had never heard of Mainstay. It's too easy to dismiss homelessness. To close our doors on it. To lock it away. Not me. Not anymore. Mainstay's approach to giving people who have been homeless access to the good life is too good to stay so overlooked, so unsung.
I'll be back.