Housing First: Stories of housing and hope

August 8, 2023
“My dogs saved my life” 

In 2015, Thomas appeared in A Dog’s Life, a documentary shown at the Vancouver Film Festival and, later, at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film explores the emotional bond that exists between homeless people and their dogs, including Thomas and his two Pomeranians, Berry and Polar.  

Shortly after, Thomas found himself at the end of hope. “Grey skies loomed in the Greater Vancouver Area,” Thomas said. “I was ready to take my life. My two dogs actually saved me from it.” Needing to get out of B.C., Thomas packed up a couple of bags, Berry and Polar, and “I put myself on the streets here in Ontario,” he said.  

Thomas bounced from shelter to shelter, once living with a friend in difficult conditions, until someone he knew who was connected to a CMHA Toronto case worker “allowed me to encroach on his visit.” He met Pio Giralico, then just taking over leadership of the Housing First program, who “knew that I needed case management and so he helped me fast track and got me a worker really quick,” Thomas said. 

From there, things started to fall in place. Thomas secured safe and affordable housing, where he continues to live, and started to take advantage of other CMHA Toronto programs, including case management and employment services. Among other gigs, he’s worked with CMHA Toronto’s Safe Bed program and as a cleaner with the agency’s Extreme Cleaning & Hoarding Support service. 

Most recently, Thomas received a Cameron-Lurie bursary, which allowed him to complete Robyn Priest’s 40-hour peer support worker training course. In July 2023, he was also able to complete the GraceWins peer support certification. 

Thomas’ life has turned around completely from 2015 and he says “it’s mainly because of all the support I've gotten from CMHA Toronto; having someone behind me, backing me 100 percent.” While he knows he doesn’t owe anyone anything, he says “I feel that I owe something back because of all I’ve got through [CMHA Toronto]. One way or another I'm going to be paying it forward,” he said. He’s planning to “be registered as a peer support worker and then travel back to B.C. and help the people in B.C.” You can be sure he will be taking Berry and Polar, whom he calls his dogs with lived experience, with him. 

“I'm resilient. I'm resourceful. I know what I need. I know how to get it and I do what I gotta do. It's like someone that’s born without legs or arms, they learn to do with what they've got. You're born different, you have to deal with your differences.”

From refugee to Ph.D.

A pseudonym is used to protect client’s privacy

Hassan landed in Canada from Iran in 2018 and struggled to secure either employment or adequate housing while applying for refugee status. “Establishing myself in Canada was a problem,” Hassan said. “I was originally living with a friend, [but he] ran into some problems and I had to move out. As a result, I became homeless.”

Hassan spent the first months of 2018 in different shelters. “It was about three to four months of homelessness. I was constantly moving between shelters,” he said. One day a Housing First case manager visited the Safe Bed shelter where Hassan was staying. She helped him apply for suitable housing and by May 2018 he had moved into an apartment in Scarborough, where he still lives.

Hassan’s mental health declined during the period he was homeless. “I was managing the symptoms of panic attacks, [which] was preventing me from doing anything else. I had just moved in, there were a lot of problems I had to manage. I was going to counselling a lot through Housing First,” and through another agency where he had been volunteering.

“The weekly check-ins are valuable for people seeking emotional support to fight for what they are fighting for. It gives them hope and courage to go forward.”

Once his mental health stabilized, Hassan was able to pursue his original plan: enrolling in graduate school. His refugee status made it difficult for him because tuition, for an international student, was too costly. With his own tenacious follow-up and the support of his Housing First case manager, who helped him get a $15,000 Ontario Graduate Scholarship, Hassan was accepted to a master’s program in information technology management at the Ted Rogers School of Management, which he began in September 2018.

Hassan finished what was supposed to be an 18-month program in 12 months – fast-tracking his studies so that he could begin a Ph.D. in computer science in September 2019.

During this intense 12-month period, he was working to manage his mental health and his expenses, maintaining stable housing, studying and, to top it off, he became a permanent resident. “So a lot changed within those 12 months,” Hassan said, which seems quite an understatement. He now looks back on that period as being in “complete survival mode.”

“Housing First was very helpful from the moment that I got housed in 2018, supporting my mental health, and connecting me with everyone else who could help me. They helped me apply for bursaries and scholarships to further my education,” Hassan said.

Hassan expects to complete his Ph.D. by late summer of 2023. He’s now seeking a full-time academic position and he’s looking forward to attending his citizenship ceremony within the next few months. “Things are coming together after about seven years,” he said.

The mayor of West Eglinton

Marilyn sits in her sun-filled living room surrounded by mementoes and collectibles: framed concert posters, figurines of dragons, and aliens of all kinds, including two ET-like figures named Darren and David. “I call them my boys,” she says, with a wide smile.

Darren and David represent two children Marilyn cared for while growing up in the foster system in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She remembers being removed from her home, but she only hints at the trauma she endured and the survival skills she honed. What is most apparent in Marilyn’s story is that those survival skills are built on a foundation of deep caring and empathy for other people enduring similar hardships.

It has been a long road for Marilyn to get to this bright and cheerful living room. An arrangement living with a sister in Halifax didn’t work out, and she returned to Ontario to move in with her life-long friend, Louise, in Hamilton. “I had been with her most of my life,” Marilyn explained, “we got together when I was about 28 until she passed away in 2002. We were so good to each other. I helped her and she helped me. Like any married couple, you see things wrong. She was a drinker, and I wasn’t at that time, but I didn't leave her. I figured that's what friends do. They stick around to the end. And I did.”

Marilyn’s life took a turn for the worse after Louise passed away. She moved in with another sister in Etobicoke, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, and ended up in hospital.

One morning after a party, she woke up and said: “’This is it, no more.’ [Before], when I didn't know what I did, it never bothered me but this time it did.” Her road to recovery was one she walked mostly on her own. “I did most of this by myself. I drank, but I never had to go to AA. I did drugs, I never had to go to rehab. I smoked, I did it all.”

Once clean and sober, Marilyn started to rebuild her life. “I started going to all the coffee shops. I got to know a lot of people. And that's how everything came together.” She participated in several CMHA Toronto programs, secured housing (thanks to leads she found through her now-extensive network), and got counselling to support her mental health.

Her current CMHA Toronto case worker, Lou Sevilla, calls her “The Mayor of West Eglinton” – a descriptor that perfectly fits the role Marilyn plays in her community. She has found ways to share her hard-won experience and strengths with others, gaining the respect of coffee shop regulars (“they all call me mama,” she said), and encouraging those who are struggling with drugs and alcohol to get the help they need.

Some friends get help and she doesn’t see them again, and Marilyn bears that loss as a sign of their success. To those who return and look to be sliding back into old ways, she says “’What are you doing here? Go away, go somewhere else, start a new life.’” She doesn’t worry as much about herself, she says: “People do [drugs and alcohol] around me and it doesn't bother me, because I've got the power to say what I want and it's not that.”

Her connections extend to people’s families: “I told one family that [a person she knew] needs help and he's not going to get it by you talking to him. He's got to have doctors, and not just for a month or two.”

It's help she’s received and knows makes a difference. “I met with the right doctors and therapists and it worked,” she affirms, pointing to a small tattoo of a semi-colon on her wrist. It’s a symbol worn by those who have survived depression, addiction, and other mental health issues, like she has.

“My life is a good life now, it's a life that I never had. I just didn’t. You see everything differently. You don't see the hatred, you don't see what happened in the past to make you what you were then,” she says, adding “I have my own little things that I have to live with daily. I know how to work with them. I’m a survivor.”

“My goal is to live a peaceful, restful life for the rest of my life. And go out and talk to people. That's my goal.”

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