Cautionary tales on the road to bold and innovative.

By Leslie Campbell, May 2015

It’s political will—not ideas—that we’ve been missing in reducing homelessness.

In 2007 a documentary film came out that portrays a highly effective way to help homeless addicts recover and become productive citizens. I was able to view this film, called Finding Normal, at Our Place on April 21, compliments of Movie Monday and the filmmaker Brian Lindstrom. (The previous night they screened his newer film Alien Boy, about a man who was beaten to death by members of the Portland Police.) 

City of Victoria officials should see both films, but Finding Normal may be especially inspirational as they work to carry out their strategic plan commitment to “bold and innovative” leadership.

Finding Normal follows three workers and three clients of  the “Recovery Mentor” program, a project run by Portland’s non-profit Central City Concern. This successful program—which treats 45 people at a time—shows how, during a six-month program, long-time addicts can and do turn their lives around. 

Using cinema verité, Lindstrom’s camera follows, up close and personal, the workers as they meet and coach new clients fresh out of detox or prison, help them get settled in their new studio apartment (the first proper home they may have had in a decade), conduct peer support groups, and continually remind clients of the only things they have to do (at least to start): “Don’t get high. Don’t steal nothing. Don’t hurt nobody. Go to a meeting.” One worker tells his new charge: “As long as your intentions are genuine, I will have your back. Like no one’s had your back in a long time.” 

As the film shows, a crucial key to the program’s success is the workers’ own history of chronic drug abuse and incarceration—along with their success at going clean. People who once walked in the shoes of someone who has lost him or herself to drugs and crime for years seem able to inspire the trust and hope needed for them to believe change is possible. “I don’t know how to live a normal life,” admits one of the clients. “There’s so much fear involved with getting clean, it’s almost paralyzing,” explains a worker in the film.

A study by Portland State University of the program’s effectiveness looked at the drug use and criminal activity of 87 recipients of services. In the year prior to entering the CCC program, most used three or four drugs daily—heroin, crack cocaine, alcohol and meth-amphetamine mostly. They spent an average of $206 a day on drugs—over $6000 per month. 

Unsurprisingly, such drug use resulted in criminal activity—93 percent  had committed crimes; 62 percent were committing crime on a daily basis—drug dealing, stealing, shoplifting, assault, and threatening violence. 

But once in the program, the report notes, there was “a 95 percent reduction in the number of individuals who used illegal drugs, and no one used drugs on a daily basis post-treatment.” Program graduates credited their success “first and foremost to the safe housing they received, second to the peer support, third to structured drug treatment, and fourth to the validation and compassion they felt from others.” 

Money not spent on drugs for the 86 clean clients for the average 325 days clean was a staggering $5,729,750. Criminal behaviour was reduced by 93 percent.

The film, of course, paints a more intimate picture than the report. It’s intense and moving to witness how hope gradually conquers fear on the path to “normal.” After the screening, filmmaker Lindstrom told us he knew that two of the clients shown in the film were doing well, eight years later. In fact he had attended their weddings.

On a cautionary note, Lindstrom also mentioned that pretty much every year this program has to fight for its life as civic budgets tighten.

 

IN LATE 2006, when Lindstrom was completing his film, many of us in this city were fed up with the lack of action on homelessness. So Focus decided to hold a contest. We invited local citizens to come up with a concrete proposal to solve Victoria’s homelessness problem. We suggested they aim for 2000 units and be as specific as they could about where to house people, how to build the homes, and where the money would come from. We received many creative responses. In January 2007, we held a forum to present the winning team’s ideas. It drew 800 people to Alix Goolden Hall.

I will give Mayor Lisa Helps a copy of the winning proposal. Helps and her council are promising “bold and innovative” action on a number of fronts, including affordable housing strategies and homelessness solutions, and our winning proposal—the Independence Settlement Project—was certainly that. It included a design for an innovative form of modular housing as well as supportive services and more transitional housing, on leased unused government-owned properties like school sites. The team also advocated for the formation of a committee of top professional people that could command the respect of higher levels of government—people who could convince them to step up to the funding plate.

While these ideas had legs for a while, eventually they were turned down and the proponents turned off by the apparent timidity and rigidity of the powers that were. The community got no modular housing; no government lands were leased; and instead of that influential committee, we got a coalition of service providers—useful, but not exactly the high-pressured, politically savvy fundraising team recommended. 

I recall another bold and innovative person introducing himself to me at that 2007 forum: Richard Leblanc. He told me he was working towards the idea of a therapeutic farm community for the homeless, based on the highly effective San Patrignano Rehabilitation Community Cooperative in Italy (which is completely self-supporting). Some members of the Independence Settlement Project team, including developer Joe Van Belleghem of Dockside Green, went on to mentor Leblanc. 

The idea was to provide homeless folks who were ready to commit to sobriety, longterm (up to two years) housing, treatment, productive work, skills learning, and community—far from the temptations of the street. A bold and innovative idea, for sure. 

Funders came forward allowing the purchase of the 193-acre Woodwynn Farm. The plan was to start small and ultimately house, support and employ 96 formerly homeless citizens.

But it seems it was a bit too bold and innovative for Central Saanich. Its council fought the project for years, even launching a law suit. The Agriculture Land Commission refused to allow more than six homeless people to be housed on the property as farm workers, despite the commitment to farming the land. 

Leblanc has had incredible support from the community, with numerous organizations and individuals donating time, money and skills. But for six years the farm, limited by officialdom to housing and mentoring only six clients at a time, has not been able to provide a “hand up” to many more individuals who are ready to make a change. It’s both tragic and idiotic.

 

YET THERE HAS BEEN a great deal of progress around homelessness since 2007. Most of us seem to accept a “housing first” strategy as key to getting people off the streets longterm. We have Cool Aid, which already operates 374 supportive units, determined to build 360 new homes for the homeless. We have Our Place, Pacifica Housing and the Greater Victoria Housing Society, and Reverend Al Tysick’s Dandelion Society and others all doing excellent work. We have the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness—whose goal is to eliminate homelessness by 2018. The Coalition’s late April report breaks down exactly what it will cost to house and support the 400 chronic users of Victoria’s shelter system. It’s complicated, but capital costs under one scenario are less than one-tenth those of the new Johnson Street Bridge. 

There are numerous people in our community with bold and innovative—even proven effective—ideas. We are not lacking for ideas or expertise or concern. But something’s obviously not working.

Once upon a time, both the federal and provincial governments built subsidized housing. Homelessness was virtually unheard of in the 1980s, but by 2000 people were sleeping in doorways—because those higher levels of government had lost interest. This downloading to cities of responsibility for housing, along with that of mental health supports, is at the root of our nation’s homelessness troubles. With a federal election coming, it’s time to query candidates on whether they are committed to rejuvenating a robust national housing strategy. It’s an investment that will pay off financially, as well as in human lives.

Beyond that, what we need most, it seems, is a fiercely determined, politically savvy group able to leverage funds and change from upper levels of government so we can implement the ideas and solutions we already have. In the case of Woodwynn, we need a creative approach to appease the rule makers at Central Saanich and the ALC. At the risk of repeating myself: We have the bold and innovative ideas already. We have proof of their cost effectiveness—we know they save taxpayers’ money on policing, hospital, penitentiary services, and park cleanup. We have many sincere and able people. It’s the people in power who are failing us. 

Leslie Campbell is the founder and editor of Focus. On Saturday, May 2, Woodwynn Farm invites the public to its new labyrinth and peace garden, which features sculptures created by Deryk Houston and other artists.