‘It’s heaven — it’s my home’

Having a safe, affordable place to live has helped ex-offender turn life around

Rosie Mullaley rmullaley@thetelegram.com
Published on April 28, 2014

Getting a smack in the face was common. Having your things stolen was unavoidable. Snorting cocaine was part of the routine.

It all happened at the place John — not his real name — was forced to call home: a tiny bed-sitting room in a St. John’s house with four other men.

“It was hell,” he said. “I’d rather be in prison.”

It was 2010 and John had just finished serving his third federal prison term for committing several violent crimes.

“I was a gang-banger,” John said. “I did a lot of bad things. I was in a bad place in life.”

He had no money and had no family to turn to, having damaged relationships throughout his troubled life.

The shelters were full and he needed somewhere to go to try and make a fresh start — somewhere he could work on reconnecting with his three kids.

A bed-sitting room was his only option.

It didn’t take long for John, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, to slip back into the dark side of life.

He found it difficult to resist the temptation of drugs.

“It was a crack shack,” he said.

“You throw four addicts in one place, you can just imagine how hard that is. It was trouble from Day 1.

“And the landlord didn’t give a f--k. As long as he got his money, he didn’t care what went on there.”

A little more than a year later, John was back behind bars, charged with assault with a weapon and assault causing bodily harm.

He was sentenced to a three-year federal jail term and was again sent to the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B.

About a year into his term, he was charged again after he beat up another inmate, breaking his jaw. He got another few months tacked on to his term.

“I hit rock bottom,” he said. “I didn’t care what happened to me.”

Last year, after serving 38 straight months, he was freed from prison and on a plane back to St. John’s.

This time, he vowed, things would be different.

“I just said, ‘Enough is enough,’”  said John, who had worked on mending the bond with his family while in jail.

“I don’t want that kind of life anymore. I’m a good guy.”

He knew a key step in his recovery would be finding a place to call his own — somewhere safe, without the lure of drugs and other pressures.

With the help of Turnings — a community agency that helps ex-offenders get their lives back on track — John found a cosy, two-bedroom apartment.

“It’s heaven. It’s my home,” he said. “It’s nice. It’s clean.

“My family helped me paint it and they come over for supper.”

He gets $1,000 a month from social assistance — enough to cover rent, the bills and some food.

“I don’t have to let anybody through the door if I don’t want to,” John said. “I’ve got no worries about anybody stealing my food or having to share a scummy bathroom with anyone.

“I’ve just got to be left alone. Now, I can finally concentrate on getting a better life for myself.”

John is now looking for work.

He is one of the lucky ones.

Across this province, thousands of people with mental illness and addictions issues have challenges finding safe and supportive housing.

Newfoundland Legal Aid defence lawyer Joan Dawson sees it all the time while working with clients at the Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission.

“It’s really, really atrocious and it says a lot (about the system),” she told reporters a few weeks ago following the case of 22-year-old man with mental illness who was tried and convicted for having threatened his father and stepmother with a chainsaw.

The community shelters that provide temporary accommodations are consistently at capacity.

More times than not, people with mental health issues who have been in trouble with the law end up in shoddy bed-sitting rooms or slum houses, where recovery is next to impossible.

There’s been plenty of work done in this province in the last decade to combat homelessness.

Under the leadership of Bruce Pearce, the St. John’s Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness, for example, has been instrumental in creating awareness and helping to address the problem of homelessness, which has become increasingly complex with more people with mental health issues and/or complex needs.

According to its 2012 research report, between 2000 and 2014,  $18.3 million from federal programs was expected to have been allocated in St. John’s to help homelessness, and provincial and municipal policies, funding and services have been used to support those at risk for homelessness.

The lack of affordable housing is a nationwide problem.

According to the Canadian Homeless Research Network, 30,000 people are homeless on any given night.

It’s estimated at least 200,000 Canadians a year access homeless emergency services or sleep outside.

Of the 10 per cent who are chronically homeless, almost all suffer from mental illness.

A recent study commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) found that finding proper housing for people with mental illness is the most cost-effective treatment there is.

The money it takes to house people in hospitals, jails and shelters is more than twice as much as providing housing and support.

The study revealed that for every $1 spent providing housing and support for a homeless person with severe mental illness, $2.17 is saved from having them in shelters, medical facilities or prisons.

The four-year study also found that placing emphasis on getting housing first — instead of focusing first on issues like sobriety and taking medication — also improves mental and physical health.

According to the MHCC, homelessness can reduce a person’s life expectancy by 20 years, since existing health problems can be exacerbated.

“If you want to change your life around, you have to have a safe place at the end of the day,” said Turnings executive director Ron Fitzpatrick.

Sheldon Pollett, executive director of Choices for Youth, agrees that giving a person a sense of security gives them hope for a better life.

“The approach used to be if you have addictions or a mental health issue, sort that out first. But now, it’s let’s get you housing first,” he said.

“If you’re provided with the stability of a place to lay your head every night, you’re likely to deal better with the other issues going on in your life.”


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