Social housing provides shelter from mental illness and addiction

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Image credit: Kenneth Uzodinma.

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SFU health sciences professor Julian Somers recently released new findings that demonstrate the effectiveness of supported housing in assisting those with drug addictions and mental illness in Vancouver neighbourhoods.

Conducted by Somers along with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the five-year study provided apartments to participants throughout Vancouver. Results showed that the situation of formerly homeless people improved both in a financial sense and in overall health.

These improvements included fewer emergency department visits, reduced time spent in institutions due to criminal convictions, improved quality of life, and less time on the streets. Overall, these indicate an across-the-board improvement caused by the new interventions that were introduced by the study in Vancouver.

The research showed that the costs of providing these individuals with housing and support versus leaving them on the street where they may end up in shelters, emergency rooms, and jails, were roughly equivalent.

For every $10 invested in providing housing, there was an average savings of $8.55 in avoided use of social services.

In discussing the overarching research program, Somers stated, “We conducted some experiments to try to discover effective housing and support models for people who had been excluded from existing services.”

The study looked at 500 participants who had been homeless for roughly 10 years — people that were chronically homeless and oftentimes experiencing mental illness.

Analyzing each individual’s mental status, Somers said, “The most common diagnosis that people met criteria for was schizophrenia. The majority also had significant problems with substance abuse.”

Somers described the living conditions for the participants of the study: “The housing itself is market housing. It isn’t the house that is built for homeless people or anything of that sort.  It is just regular housing from the existing stock. And in order to make that work, people are provided with support.”

Somers continued, “[That support can manifest as] a team, individuals with different expertise, or, if individuals do not have needs that warrant that, they could be a case manager.”

A large aspect of the research was giving people some choice in their circumstance.  Somers explained, “It is client-centered in the sense that it gives people choices in [. . .] getting involved in health or mental health treatment. It also gets them involved in places around their home.”

Somers spoke to the importance of the study, but mentioned its limitations in a population that can often find itself trapped. “Homelessness includes a diverse group of people, most of whom, fortunately, will find their own way out of homelessness, but there is a subset [. . .] who don’t find their own way,” Somers said.

Somers said that one of the biggest challenges to homelessness is the stigma surrounding mental illness. “Stigma concerning mental illness is profound. It is evident, not only among members of the public — it is evident even among health care providers.

“Neighbours being able to welcome people into their mix, accommodate people who happen to have been homeless. That is an example of the stigma of mental illness being overcome. [. . .] Simple and straightforward acts like talking to people.”