The Need for Housing (long version)
In its commitment to improving the lives of people living with mental illness, Mainstay Housing makes this forum within our website available. Here we offer a variety of perspectives on issues around mental health. Mainstay does not necessarily agree with all the opinions expressed here.
Imagine that you've just come out of a psychiatric hospital. You've come from days of smoking, playing cards, going to therapy groups and being medicated. There you are on the street. Maybe your jacket is a bit thin, and you are confused by the medication. They have given you some clothes, a token and a prescription. Which way do you go? No doubt you've lost that boarding house room you had before you went in. The landlady had wanted the rent every week, Sunday night, or you were out of the place. You don't feel up to listening to her make you feel small.
You need money to live; you need a place to stay, you need something to do, something to eat, someone to talk to. You need what every human needs. You need respect. You need a friend, a job, and a home. Let's be clear - without a home, a job and a friend are hard to come by.
How do you get back on your feet and in motion again? How do you join society - get clean clothes, get a job? Where do you go?
This was and is the case for many people leaving psychiatric hospitals. Of course everyone has their own particular story - some have supportive families, some left good jobs and will return to them, some are taking only minor amounts of medication, and some have plugged into helpful social services. Not everyone leaving a psychiatric hospital is this marginalized - but for many, this is the reality: there IS nowhere to go.
A home gives you a base. It's where you can let your hair down and be vulnerable, make a grilled cheese sandwich just the way you like it or take a 2 hour bath. This is where your private self resides. You make your home you - beautiful or comfortable, utilitarian or grubby - it is an extension of you. Hostels, unregulated boarding houses or the street are not homes. Many of these places aren't safe. You can't let down your guard - someone might yell at you or steal the few possessions you have - your signed baseball, your radio, your work clothes, or the pictures of your mother.
Mainstay Housing is one of nine supportive housing providers created to address this need. The mandate of these not-for-profit organizations is to furnish housing where the rent is geared to the tenant's income. The tenants are those marginalized by poverty and mental illness. The housing all has some form of support attached to it to help people make the transition from institutions and the street to homes. All of these providers have made a difference, but they are not nearly enough.
There are long, long lists of people waiting to get into the supportive housing units. Those who don't get in are faced with that same choice - where to go when there is nowhere to go?
The numbers are frightening. The Mayor's Action Taskforce: Taking Responsibility for Homelessness 1999 noted that 1,000 new units of supportive housing per year for 5 years need to be built in Toronto to keep pace with the demand.
With recent government reforms, there is an increased push to move people out of psychiatric institutions and into communities. In principle this is a praiseworthy idea; however, that great void of emptiness still awaits the majority of people - there isn't enough safe, affordable housing to go around.
There is also the hidden need of mental health consumer-survivors living with their families. It has often been families who provide housing and support for members who were part of earlier waves of deinstitutionalization. Many family care-givers are getting older and are worried they may no longer be able to continue being alternative support providers to the formal mental health system. They are looking for other choices.
Supportive housing is a cheaper and healthier alternative to psychiatric hospitals, prisons or shelters. Without housing as a base, services addressing other needs can have little impact. Everyone needs a home.
Click here to read more on this issue in an interview with Lana Frado.
For further reading, click here for a short resources list.