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This post is the latest in a series of articles from guest bloggers. Each week experts and activists in fields of homelessness and mental health explore some of the issues raised by a Here At Home film.

From NFB interactive, Here At Home is a cutting-edge documentary experience that offers a look inside At Home, a radical experiment to end chronic homelessness. Led by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the experiment is the largest of its kind in the world. The theory it’s testing: there’s a way to end homelessness for people with mental illness and it starts with giving them homes.

For today’s post we matched the Moncton film, “Open Sky” with Mary Alberti, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario. Alberti has over twenty years’ experience in the non-profit sector.  She joined the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario in 2001, following work in the community and mental health fields, and the policy and government sector.

In this film we meet Anthony, an individual who is living with schizophrenia.  Anthony has been homeless and lived in shelters, but with the support of the At Home/Chez Soi initiative he has the opportunity to live in a one-bedroom apartment and then later relocates to a cooperative farm.  Anthony talks about his life story, mentioning that initially he didn’t believe his diagnosis of schizophrenia, and that the voices he heard he thought were the spirit world communicating with him.  The film introduces us to Anthony at a point in his life when he’s quite stable, he’s on medication, working at the coop farm and starting classes at university.

Anthony’s story mirrors many of the issues the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario (SSO) encounters on a routine basis.  Each individual’s journey toward recovery is a personalized one and typically includes both high and low points.  Social supports, such as housing and friends are just as crucial to the recovery as medical and mental health supports.

But Anthony also embodies the statement that the SSO shares with all: with access to treatments, services and supports individuals living with schizophrenia and psychosis are able to lead fulfilling lives.

The Schizophrenia Society of Ontario is a province-wide charitable organization that was founded in 1979 by Bill and Dorothy Jefferies to build awareness about serious mental illnesses and to support families and individuals living with these illnesses.  Since its grassroots beginning, the SSO has expanded and now provides support and services to individuals, families and communities affected by schizophrenia and psychosis.  These include education initiatives; awareness, information and knowledge building programs; advocacy; youth-oriented programming and a diverse research portfolio; all geared to breaking down stigma and making a positive difference in the lives of individuals, families and communities who are living with schizophrenia and psychosis.

One of the largest obstacles the SSO, individuals and families living with schizophrenia face, is the stigma and discrimination associated with this illness.  While any mental illness must battle public misconceptions, schizophrenia faces a wealth of prejudice and discrimination and initiatives like Here At Home/Ici, Chez Soi, which shed light on the reality of individuals who live with mental illnesses, help fight these.  This film also helps support the message that the SSO works hard to communicate – that individuals living with schizophrenia, are not their diagnosis, they are individuals who, like the rest of society, have hopes, aspirations and goals.  Just as individuals living with physical illnesses are not and should not be defined by their disease, individuals living with mental illnesses are more than their diagnosis.

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This post is the latest in a series of articles from guest bloggers. Each week experts and activists in fields of homelessness and mental health explore some of the issues raised by the Here At Home webdoc.

From NFB interactive, Here At Home is a cutting-edge documentary experience that offers a look inside At Home, a radical experiment to end chronic homelessness. Led by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the experiment is the largest of its kind in the world. The theory it’s testing: there’s a way to end homelessness for people with mental illness and it starts with giving them homes.

For today’s post invited Sandra Dawson to write about the Here At Home site as a whole. Dawson is a mental health and homelessness advocate from Vancouver, and was an At Home/Chez Soi peer advisor (2009-2013). Creator of the Unsuicide Online Suicide Help Wiki, she can be found at @unsuicide.

I had a friend over for dinner who complimented my dishes. I told him I acquired the soup bowls in a thrift store for $2 each, after losing my wedding china long ago in one of my bouts of homelessness. On a disability pension I can’t afford to replace an entire set at once but since last regaining housing I’ve put together a mismatched but coherent set of blue glass pieces I can be proud of. Four dinner plates that match the bowls were $5 at a yard sale, tumblers I’ve bought one by one, and two beautiful mugs with First Nations designs were just $3 each. They look great together.

So although I still have a low income, I’ve learned ways to thrive in recovering from the trauma and loss that accompanies homelessness.

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This post is the latest in a series of articles from guest bloggers. Each week experts and activists in fields of homelessness and mental health explore some of the issues raised by a Here At Home film.

From NFB interactive, Here At Home is a cutting-edge documentary experience that offers a look inside At Home, a radical experiment to end chronic homelessness. Led by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the experiment is the largest of its kind in the world. The theory it’s testing: there’s a way to end homelessness for people with mental illness and it starts with giving them homes.

For today’s post we matched the Montreal film, A New Lease, with Julia Gonsalves who supervises Adult and Senior Community Services at The 519 Church Street Community Centre. The 519 is a multi-service agency in downtown Toronto serving the local community as well as broader LGBTQ communities. It runs a weekly drop-in program for homeless, under-housed and vulnerable LGBTQ people and their allies, the first drop-in with this focus in Toronto. Julia wrote a regular column for Xtra! Canada’s largest and most widely read gay and lesbian publication from 2001-2012. 

I just watched Simon seeing his apartment for the first time – his genuine excitement and optimism – and I think about the handful of folks who bounce into the drop-in to tell me they’ve “found a place”- it’s too far and maybe it’s got bugs and the people upstairs use crack and pound on the ceiling – but they’ve found a place. There is pride in that. At the same time, we both recognize, there is risk in that. Once you’ve got something, you’ve got something to lose. There is a component of tragic freedom in having nothing because you’ve got nothing to lose. In a tiny, enormous, painful way, you’re free. Going home – to a house – there is risk in that.

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a still from the Academy Award-winning film "Ryan" by Chris Landreth, produced by the NFB and Copper Heart Entertainment

We know what to do if we see somebody fall down the subway steps or crash their bike into a lamp-post – call 911 and try to provide some comfort until help arrives. But what about this scenario? Walking down the street you pass somebody talking to the air about aliens and it’s obvious they’re experiencing an episode of mental illness. I, for one, never know what to do and end up trying to avoid the person. But this is a sorry response born of fear and ignorance. Our culture sensationalizes the (rare) acts of violence committed by people with mental illness when, paradoxically, it’s this population which is the most vulnerable. As a result, we, or at least I, end up shunning those who may be deeply in need of help. So, what’s the right thing to do?

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Bouchra Arbach (on right), a registered nurse case-manager, walking with At Home participant, Theresa in the film "Evicted."

“Our team works with more than 80 participants and every morning we meet to go through the database and review each of their cases,” explains Greg Richmond, project leader of At Home’s Vancouver Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team. “We sort out what needs to be done and then scatter across the city to visit our clients. This project requires an incredibly high level of organization – I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

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A still from Here At Home film, "The Wound Inside"

1. The experiment: Sometimes it’s referred to as a study, sometimes a “national research demonstration project,” sometimes a, “randomized controlled trial.” We just like to call it, “the experiment.”

2. The big idea: find the best way to help people who are homeless and have mental illness. (more…)

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A still from Here At Home film, "A Model Person"

Yvonne Robertson’s excellent article posted on Open File today, looks into homelessness in Vancouver and the question of what happens when the At Home study ends in 2013. She focuses on the Bosman Hotel project and Lynne Stopkewich‘s Here At Home film, “A Model Person,” gets a mention.

What’s unique about the Bosman Hotel is it gives participants the chance to form consistent relationships with doctors and police officers. Just having this presence addressing issues such as addiction helps stabilize behaviours, according to Evans. But as the study ends in 2013, the fate of the Bosman Hotel hangs in the balance. If it has to shut down next year, at least 100 housed participants are back on the streets.

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Lynne Stopkewich has had a distinguished career in feature films, documentaries and TV. While it’s clear that she’s deeply immersed herself in the issues that surround this project, what has most impressed me about her work is its powerful and distinct visual style. Easy-going and thoughtful, she spoke with me over the phone from her home in Vancouver.

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