Homelessness a persistent problem for people with mental illness, addictions
First in a three-part series
A young man diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder is forced to look for emergency shelter once he’s out of jail.
A troubled teenager sparks a fatal fire at a boarding house where he had lived with five men.
A recovering cocaine addict with severe depression is denied bail because she doesn’t have a permanent address.
The stories are all too common. More and more in our province, people with complex needs — mental health issues and/or addictions — who have been in trouble with the law are left living in substandard conditions due to the lack of safe, affordable housing.
Once their legal cases are settled, their trials have just begun when it comes to trying to get their lives back on track.
They often have no job, no source of income, no community support and no place to live.
With shelters in the metro area consistently at capacity, they often end up living in places which do nothing but hinder their recovery.
Time and again they end up back behind bars, no farther ahead than they were before.
“It’s a huge problem and shows what a gap there is in the system,” Legal Aid lawyer Joan Dawson said.
Dawson recently represented Taylor Mitchell — a quiet but troubled young man who was arrested after chasing his father and stepmother with a chainsaw.
The 22-year-old showed signs of mental illness as a teenager and had spent the past several years in and out of the Waterford Hospital.
He was convicted of his crimes and sentenced last month to 106 days’ time served, with 18 months’ probation.
But sentencing the young man was a challenge, as Judge Jim Walsh first wanted to ensure Mitchell had somewhere to live before agreeing to release him from jail.
That left Dawson scrambling.
“How can individuals with serious mental illnesses function in the community without appropriate supports?” Dawson had said.
“It becomes a real problem for everybody.”
Even the judge admitted the case exposed a hole in the system, one he hoped someone would pay serious attention to.
There were a lot of questions following a shocking November 2011 fire in which a 54-year-old man died in a Springdale Street boarding house. The blaze was set by a 16-year-old boy who had also been living there.
The teen — who had attention deficit disorder, as well as serious drug and alcohol addictions — was no longer with his family, despite their best efforts to help him, and had been staying at the boarding house for months.
A year later, he was convicted of several charges, including manslaughter, and was sentenced to the maximum three-year youth term.
Judge Colin Flynn called it “a tragic set of social circumstances.”
A boarding house or bed-sitting room are often the only options for people in such circumstances, according to community groups who work with people with complex needs.
“It’s unbelievable the places they end up — places you wouldn’t put a pig in,” said Ron Fitzpatrick, executive director at Turnings, a community group that provides support to ex-offenders.
“But they’ve got nowhere else to go. For the people who come to us (about 80 a month), finding affordable housing, a place that’s safe to go, is by far their biggest challenge.”
Fitzpatrick said boarding houses, for the most part, offer horrible living conditions.
“Some of them are just dumps,” he said. “You picture it: you’re in this place. You share a bathroom that’s filthy, with five other guys. You can’t get any peace. There’s always a racket. Somebody’s banging on your door asking for a cigarette. Everybody’s drinking and doing drugs. You can’t turn around and somebody’s stolen your food.”
It’s a recipe for disaster for those with mental illness who may also be a recovering drug addict or alcoholic, he said.
“Everything is in their face. They can’t get away from it.
“When you get out of jail, you’re in a spin. You’re still weak, and you’ve constantly got people coming up to you saying, ‘Come on, man, have a drink,’ or ‘Have some drugs.’ You’re an addict and you’ve got a mental illness, so it’s tough not to mess up again.
“With all that going on, what chance have they got at starting a new life?”
Fitzpatrick said once they apply for income support benefits, a single adult in this province with no dependent children receives between $700 and $900 a month. It’s barely enough to cover rent, food, clothing and transportation, Fitzpatrick said.
“Then you wonder why they’re out stealing,” he said.
He said managing money, remembering to regularly take medications and make appointments with counsellors can be overwhelming for someone with a mental illness, especially when they’re in an unhealthy environment.
Sheldon Pollett, executive director of Choices for Youth, which provides help for troubled young people, agrees there’s a housing problem for people with complex needs.
He said in the past decade, agencies such as Turnings, Choices for Youth, Stella Burry, the Tommy Sexton Centre, Iris Kirby House, the Wiseman Centre, the Salvation Army’s New Hope and Marguerite’s Place have done great work in helping people in need, but services are stretched to meet the demand.
“A lot of gains have been made. ... Imagine where we’d be without these (organizations),” he said.
“But the reality of it is there are still a lot of folks, whether youth or not, because of their circumstances, addictions and mental health issues, are not getting the help they need.
“We’re trying to keep up with the pace, but we can only do so much. Unfortunately, in our community, what’s safe (housing) is the least affordable. It speaks to the work that still needs to be done.”
With a booming economy, the price of housing has skyrocketed in recent years and vacancy rates are low.
Shelters are only a temporary option. Support needs to continue once they are out of the care of the shelter to help them transition to, say, an apartment, Pollett said.
There’s also the hidden homeless population — those who are forced to live with family and friends.
But the lack of affordable housing is only part of the problem, Pollett said. It’s also getting support for people with these needs to ensure they don’t slip through the cracks.
That includes creating more community-based services to make certain people get followup treatment.
It can mean something as simple as providing cab fare to get them to medical appointments or rehabilitation meetings.
“It’s a housing issue, fundamentally, but it has an impact on mental health and the justice system as well,” he said.
“All have a vested interest in this and have a responsibility to address it.”
Dr. Nazar Ladha, the province’s chief psychiatrist, has assessed thousands of people with mental illness and/or addictions issues who have been through the justice system.
The large majority diagnosed with a mental illness, he said, go back to their “normal” lives, with a roof over their head, once they have been diagnosed and treated.
However, here are many who also deal with social issues, like addictions, a troubled background, lack of education, a low financial status and poverty. These people have a difficult time coping in the community.
“Our prisons across the country have a good percentage of inmates who are mentally ill — at least 35 per cent — and many more have addiction problems,” Ladha said.
“What’s important is to be able to provide them treatment in the community. If you don’t, you’re making them vulnerable, not only to more behaviour problems, but to more criminal charges.”
Ladha said having a safe place to live is one of the most important ingredients in recovery.
“Housing is absolutely essential,” he said. “If you don’t have a stable roof over your head, you’re not going to be able to participate in programs and rehabilitation.
“Having a stable place to live not only gives a person a sense of security, but a sense of identity and freedom to grow and express themselves.”
Monday: Home sweet home