A Hope motel has become an ad hoc supportive housing program during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image by ming dai from Pixabay)

Inside an experiment in supportive housing in Hope

As COVID-19 hit B.C., 13 shelter residents moved into motel rooms with supports

As plans by BC Housing to build 52 units of supportive housing was debated and vetoed by Hope’s council this fall, another experiment in supportive housing has been taking place in the community.

In early April as the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest, shelters across B.C. including the House of Hope were asking themselves how they could ensure their residents were safely housed. BC Housing and provincial health authorities recognized this need, so the Hope and Area Transition Society were contracted to provide additional spaces.

Half of the shelter’s residents needed to be moved elsewhere said program manager Brian Dodd, to make the shelter safer during the pandemic and in the case of COVID-19 affecting the facility. Those who had stayed longest at the shelter – some had been there 400 to 600 days – were offered to move into a room at a motel** rented out by the housing agency.

“We started out just [having] to split our guests up and then when we recognized that the people that we were moving up there were all the ones that had been with us for an extended period of time, they were all going to be in their own rooms,” Dodd said. “It was an ideal opportunity to see how supported housing is going to work.”

There are 13 residents at the motel, as well as rooms where self-isolation can occur should someone test positive for COVID-19. It is staffed 24 hours a day by support workers with training in mental health issues, how to work in a trauma-informed way and de-escalating situations Dodd said.

Some other supports are three meals a day, a mental health nurse and an on-call doctor who also services the emergency shelter. The staff control who comes in and out of the units through a system where clients leave their keys at the front desk when they leave their units.

Three residents the Hope Standard spoke to, whose names have been changed to ensure privacy, explained what it’s been like to transition into their own rooms at the motel.

‘I always felt like there was someone to talk to’ – Brendan

After experiencing the death of his mother and having had enough of working in the Alberta oil fields, Brendan* moved to Hope two years ago. The House of Hope emergency shelter could take in him and his pet, so Brendan moved in.

Coming up on 40 years old, Brendan has had issues with addiction for 23 years, as well as dealing with a mental health diagnosis and cycling in and out of jail. It makes gaining employment difficult, and more than that “you feel like an outcast because nobody wants an ex-criminal working for them.”

“So finding the confidence to do things has always been a challenge,” he said. Rarely living long in one place, stability was nowhere to be found in Brendan’s life.

“I always felt like there was someone to talk to there,” he said of life at the shelter. Some challenges did arise, and he had to develop the skills to stay away from illicit substances while some at the shelter consumed them.

Brendan has tried living on his own in Hope, it lasted three months. At first he was excited to take that step, yet soon found himself not wanting to see his counsellor – he began isolating and fell into a depression. It’s an experience he’s had before, with many years of cycling between well paying jobs to “self-destruct” and end up in a bad place, over and over.

So he came back to the shelter as he felt more comfortable around the workers there, something he hasn’t experienced in a long time. “I can’t do it by myself, I’m realizing that and I’m not ashamed in any way, shape or form. I just need help,” he said.

When the option came up, Brendan moved into his own room at the motel. He immediately felt relaxed and at ease. “Honestly I felt like there was a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders, just knowing that the support was there and the meals,” he said. “I know that living in this kind of environment, with constant support, things can only get better.”

It’s Brendan’s first time living on his own and it’s a nice change, he has personal space when needed and it feels “almost like a sense of accomplishment.” The most important thing for him is to have someone to talk to, to have emotional support and to feel accepted, so he is often in conversation with the support workers. In comparison, when Brendan was active in addiction it was very isolating. “I toughed out some really crappy roads in my life… now I feel that I finally have the help and the guidance that I need to make it ahead in life.”

In the two years since he has been in Hope, first at the House of Hope and now in his own room at the motel, Brendan said he has become an “open book.” He credits his ability to speak candidly about his past with the support he has received from the workers here.

Brendan said supportive housing would be a logical next step for him. “It’s going to be a safe place for us to be. And just having that kind of structure, it can turn people against addiction,” he said. “If you’re feeling good…and you feel like you’re actually progressing in life, sometimes you just stop doing drugs…It’s a big help for some people to know that there’s help.”

While he said stigma against homeless people “being addicts and criminals” likely influenced council’s decision to say no to BC Housing’s proposal, he agrees the location on “prime commercial property” was not ideal.

‘My dream is a career, a living, my own independence’ – Jaynie

Jaynie*, 41, wants people to know how life can, in an instant, change from stable and successful to the complete opposite. She was living in the interior and had been for 12 years, with a long-term relationship and a house she owned, when a car accident changed everything.

Jaynie was severely debilitated by the accident. She fought for her life meanwhile trying to keep her job and fighting a six-year lawsuit for damages. While she won her case, she said by then it was too late as she had experienced her first major psychotic breakdown that saddled her with criminal justice issues.

After several detrimental experiences – theft, vandalism and assault – in low income and supportive housing down-Valley as well as at an apartment building in Hope, Jaynie found her way to the shelter. By this time she was distraught, having had to leave a temporary accommodation in Hope in a hurry.

“I do not like communal living at all, I felt very at risk,” she said. “It’s not the staff’s fault, they can only do so much to keep it safe. The rest is on the residents.” Jaynie was stressed and ready to move to another community, even in the midst of a pandemic. This was when she was offered to move to the motel.

At first her new space felt scary. Yet nine months on, she said she is feeling more stable and safe. It’s not always this way, Jaynie said, as the nature of drug and alcohol addiction as well as the potential to be targeted by an offender provokes feelings of anxiety, stress and rage. Yet staff are supportive to her concerns, and Jaynie says she trusts them.

Wherever she goes, Jaynie nests, and she has made the space her own so much so that it doesn’t resemble a motel room anymore. Soft lights and fabrics, hand-crocheted items and art adorn her room. She is able to have her pets with her at her new room, an enormous benefit to her mental health.

Despite being an accomplished artist, Jaynie said experiencing poverty and other realities that drag her down mentally and physically makes it difficult to see the positive in life. “My dream is not low-income housing for life. My dream is a career, a living, my own independence, completely,” she said. “The only way to get out of being poor is to have a healthy place to live, that’s well controlled and has good supports.”

Jaynie said people don’t understand poverty until they are the ones living it. “Then they get to find out firsthand what it’s like to starve or to eat crappy food that doesn’t nourish you, it only takes away the pain of hunger. They don’t understand what it’s like to sleep on a cold cot, because that’s all that the funding can buy versus an actual bed with a comforter and warmth and pillows, things that are taken so much for granted,” she said.

What is needed in Hope, Jaynie said, is low income housing that is genuinely low income. And to make it more safe for someone like her, she would like to see key fobs to ensure only residents could enter the floor they lived on as well as laundry times governed by fobs to prevent theft. “You’re going to get a mix of people and sometimes those people are going to be criminal-minded,” she said, adding that the housing could also be separated into low-barrier and high-barrier floors, to “separate the problem a little bit.”

“It’s not going to start out perfect it’ll be a work in progress,” she said. “But it’s a lot better than the police having to go collect bodies in the snow or people couch surfing through a cold long winter. That kind of mentality has got to stop.”

‘I’m alive, and I have friends and I have a place to live’– John

John* came to the House of Hope and spent around three months there. It took some adjusting the first few days, living so closely with others. Then just as he got settled, John was told he would be moving to a motel room.

At hearing this news, John said he had a nervous breakdown and began to cry. He worried about leaving his newfound friends at the shelter, the first ones he has had in a long while. After the move, John said it took a lot for a 60-year-old man to “finally just breathe” and not live with fear.

When asked what it’s like to have his own space, John said for one, he has a smile on his face: “I’m happy I’m here, I really am.” Having his own room and TV has been great, however, it’s the ability to cook for himself that has been the best part of the move.

“I’ve gained more pounds when I have a long time, and these people care. They care for us,” he said. “I’m not sleeping outside, I’m not in some ditch…I’m trying to get myself ahead.”

Another big change has been starting to go to church and to pray, something he’s never done even though he’s always been a believer. “I started going to church on Sundays, I have a Bible that sits right by my bed and I get on my hands and knees, every night and say thank you to God and myself. I’m still here, I’m alive, and I have friends and I have a place to live,” he said.

“I’ve slept in garbage cans, I’ve slept in the ditch…Just to keep myself warm, keep myself alive,” John recalled. Living on the street since the age of 18 has meant always turning your head left and right, watching who might be coming along, and learning to read people well. And ill will, as well as violence, is commonplace.

“It could happen to you, it could happen to your child,” is the message he wants Hope’s decision makers to hear.

While he isn’t perfect, John has dealt with alcoholism and addiction, he said he just wants a place to live. “If you give people a f****n’ chance, they will live properly. But if you don’t give them a chance, it will go to h*ll,” he said, adding that supportive housing is where he would be going next.

What has been learned from the ‘supportive housing’ motel?

Residents have seen marked improvements since moving to the motel, Dodd said, including some securing part-time work, others taking more of an interest in dealing with mental health issues and generally better physical health. Those who use substances have also seen decreases in the need for those substances Dodd said, and one person is preparing to enter rehab.

Dodd said the incidents that might happen at the shelter, such as arguments between residents escalating, don’t happen at the motel as there is a safe space for people to retreat to when issues happen. “That is impossible in a shelter environment, you have no personal space,” he said.

How quickly some individuals experienced changes was a surprise, Dodd said, with others the growth and change takes time. Other learning for HATS has been the need to have supports accessible right away, such as rehab when a resident says they are ready for this.

“When you’re living in an environment with eight other individuals in a room, and everybody’s on top of each other. It’s really hard to find within yourself, whatever it is that encourages you to move on and move into a better place, physically and mentally,” Dodd said.

For Dodd, this is local evidence that the housing first model works. “The idea of putting a roof over somebody’s head before they can deal with other issues that they may have, it’s been proven. And now we’ve been able to see it firsthand here in our own community,” he said.

Recently departed Staff Sgt. Karol Rehdner said the RCMP have had minimal calls to the motel “and when I say minimal, it is not even raising a thought in our collective mind here in the office or my mind, as being a local trouble spot.” Fire chief Tom DeSorcy said the fire department has not responded to any calls to the motel.

As for how long this experiment continues, this depends on BC Housing as well as the way the pandemic progresses.

*Names have been changed to ensure privacy of individuals in sharing their personal stories which involve homelessness and other sensitive topics.

** The Hope Standard is not disclosing the name or location of the local motel, for the safety and privacy of motel residents.

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