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October 4, 2021

The Key Role Supportive Housing Plays in Canada’s Housing Supply

A cut out of a house with sun shining through

By Jocelyn Greene, former Executive Director of Stella Burry Community Services

By Jocelyn Greene, former Executive Director of Stella Burry Community Services (now Stella’s Circle).

The Housing Supply Challenge, delivered by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, invites applicants to propose solutions that will reduce or remove barriers to new housing supply. Evergreen supports applicants of the Housing Supply Challenge by providing guidance, mentorship, and resources needed to develop and improve their submission.

Evergreen is asking experts from the housing sector across Canada to share their experiences and highlight some key barriers to new housing supply.

Jocelyn Greene, former Executive Director of Stella Burry Community Services (now Stella’s Circle) in St. John’s, Newfoundland, shares her experiences working on one of the first supportive housing projects funded by the Supportive Communities Partnership Initiative.

Supportive vs. Affordable Housing

Affordable housing is primarily related to finance, defined predominantly by the amount of money an individual takes in compared to the amount of money spent on housing. Housing is considered affordable only when people are spending less than 30% of their income on it. That itself is already a huge barrier in Canada.

Supportive housing refers to a myriad of programs, services, and approaches to working with individuals who need extra support to be able to live on their own and to be included as part of a community. Many individuals have a complexity of challenges that makes it difficult for them to live on their own, which provides an added barrier to finding adequate housing.

A Case Study in Newfoundland

In 1995, drastic cuts were made to the Canada Assistance Plan, a cost-sharing arrangement wherein the federal government would fund eligible social programs for provinces, territories, and municipalities. At the time, I was working at Emmanuel House, a 16-bed community mental health residential center in St. John’s, NL. affiliated with the United Church of Canada.

As a result of these cuts the provincial psychiatric facility was forced to close 97 of 127 long-term beds. People didn’t have anywhere to go. Many of the individuals previously in hospital care ended up in prison, because at least that provided a warm bed with three meals a day. Shelters were opening as an emergency response, but they were overwhelmed and didn’t provide a long-term solution.

A New Approach to Supportive Housing

In late 1999, the introduction of the Government of Canada’s Supportive Communities Partnership Initiative (SCPI) allowed for a new approach to supportive housing. Stella Burry Community Services had been formed to encompass Emmanuel House and Naomi Centre, a shelter for homeless young women. However, when residents exited these programs, there was no supportive housing in place.

With funding from SCPI, we were able to purchase Carew Lodge, an old boarding house in St. John’s. We were one of the first projects that was funded in the country under that program. Because the building was so rundown and there had been constant police visits to the site, we never really had to combat NIMBYism. The neighbours were interested in learning about the improvements we were making and the supports we would be providing. We engaged the community, going door to door providing information about the development and inviting them to our grand opening, which was hosted by the neighbourhood school. The success of Carew Lodge would later help our track record when it came to other projects that we developed.

From the beginning in Carew Lodge, we realized it was important that people have their own space, even if it was just one room with their own bathroom. However, as we were also concerned about the isolation of vulnerable people. We developed community suppers and other inclusive activities. It seems simple, but helping people make real connections was key to the development of our supportive housing program. We made sure people had access to mental health services and were able to see counselling staff. As we developed Carew and other buildings, we quickly recognized that people needed to work or engage in meaningful activities.

Some of the services focused on helping people navigate the world, like offering assistance with applications to school. We started a music program which gave birth to the present day Inclusion Choir. We gave people a chance to feel part of a community.

Scaling up

Carew Lodge began with 14 units; within ten years, the supportive housing program had grown to almost 100 units. A tipping point in program expansion was when Stella’s Circle secured seven houses from the Department of National Defense through a program that donated surplus federal properties to groups developing affordable housing, called SURFI. We then mortgaged these properties to buy other houses in need of renovation and upgraded them to create more supportive housing. We eventually started a cleaning program, a carpentry program and a café. Participants in the cleaning and carpentry programs worked on the housing units; café trainees helped prepare food for residents who lived in the housing.

Building inclusive communities is a central focus of our approach, but “inclusion” needs to be treated as more than just a buzzword. It’s not a matter of simply putting participants on a board. In my experience, people have great capacities, but they really have to feel that you believe in them. They have to know that you will challenge the barriers that keep them from being included. We spent a lot of time on staff training, and the feedback we received from the people we worked with was that they trusted us. They felt that we had their backs.

Supportive Housing and Canada’s Housing Ecosystem

Canada is facing a series of challenges when it comes to housing; affordability is a huge one. Shared housing as a potential solution can be an exciting approach for students, seniors and many others but these solutions still leave people behind. There are individuals with a complexity of needs, including mental illnesses and addictions, that may not be able to share an apartment with four other people, but aren’t able to live completely alone either. They need more than just affordability. You can’t address that need without supportive housing.

As told to Evergreen.

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