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Interview

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk

There’s no denying that we’ve cultivated a serious tone Here At Home. Just look at the sombre chalkboard background to the site. After all, this is troubling subject matter we’re dealing with; the participants in the At Home project have lived some extremely hard times. A quick scan of the study’s baseline statistics reveals lives full of violence, depression, psychosis, fear, pain, despair… what’s to be cheerful about?

Appropriately, the language used by the Mental Health Commission (which is running the experiment) is extremely sensitive to the difficult circumstances experienced by project participants. And those of us involved in the Here At Home webdoc have followed suit, taking our our cue from the Commission. Mental illness combined with homelessness is no laughing matter. Or is that the whole truth? At the risk of damning myself out loud on the internet, I’m going to admit to something here: when I first watched the latest film Life Isn’t Easy, I laughed out loud.

 

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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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At Home is only one of many Housing First projects in Canada. Not only do programs in Toronto and Calgary predate the study, there are also Housing First organizations in places like Waterloo, Ontario. Lindsay Klassen, program manager and support coordinator for Supportive Housing of Waterloo (SHOW) says that the program has a 30 unit apartment building with large, fully-furnished apartments for single men and women.

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Poet and memoirist, Nick Flynn started working in homeless shelters in his hometown of Boston back in 1984. “I was doing carpentry on these single-room occupancy apartments that were being converted into condos. Every night I would walk out and see masses of homeless people on the streets. These were the same people who were getting evicted from the places I was renovating. It left a bad taste in my mouth and so I started working part-time at a homeless shelter.” Part-time quickly became full-time as homelessness reached crisis proportions in Boston.

A few years later, Flynn’s father, a con-man, bank robber and aspiring poet who had been absent for much of his son’s childhood, was evicted from his lodgings and ended up in the very shelter where Nick worked.

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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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Joe Hatch, before and after finding housing with the At Home study

“I weighed 125 pounds before I got into housing,” says Joe Hatch, a participant in the At Home study in Winnipeg. “But as soon as I had an apartment, my health improved dramatically.” Hatch, who has a B.A. in sociology, was working at the University of Winnipeg in the late 1990s when he began to experience panic attacks. “I was diagnosed with anxiety and prescribed Paxil, but that wasn’t the right diagnosis or medication.” Hatch had begun a 12-year downward spiral. “I struggled with depression for years until, after taking Paxil for too long, I went into mania and started doing things that were totally out of character for me. I became suicidal and violent.”

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In a recent post we talked about the ethical questions raised by the At Home study. It seems only fair that we now turn the lens on ourselves and ask some of the same questions.

As Toronto filmmaker, Manfred Becker says, “there are moral questions raised at every point in this project, including the filmmaking process. What’s my moral position making money off of people who live in such precarious situations?”

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Mark modelling at a CAMH fundraiser in 2011

Mark Wroblewski, the participant in the Here At Home film, Honestly Painful, grew up in a small town in Poland when the Iron Curtain was still firmly in place. While studying for a Polish language teaching degree at Warsaw University, Wroblewski participated in an exchange program in France. There he made a momentous decision. Nearly 30 years later, he remembers the precise date of his defection to the West – February 23, 1983. It would be many years before he could return to his native country.

After traveling throughout Europe and North America he ended up in Toronto where he worked at a series of odd-jobs, doing everything from fast-food prep to data-entry. He also managed to sponsor several members of his family for immigration to Canada. But in 2004, his mental health took a turn for the worse, a situation that eventually led to homelessness and time spent at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

All his life Wroblewski has nursed a desire to be in showbiz. In the 1980s he tried to get his foot in the door by working for the Church of Scientology in L.A. but this strategy never panned out. Years later he enrolled in a modelling school in Scarborough, Ontario, but that never went anywhere either.  “The secret to my success”, he notes with ironic delight, , “is that I never slept with anybody who could further my career.”  In 2011, he took a turn on the catwalk at a CAMH event and received a standing ovation. You can see why – he’s clearly in his element.

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A still from Here At Home film, "Money Changes You"

When asked how he feels about housing, James, the participant in the film, Money Changes You, has this surprising answer:

I’d rather be back on the street because I understand the street better than living indoors.  Living outdoors you’re completely free. You’re independent and life is as you make it day by day by yourself and it’s more honest and honourable. Because once you’re indoors you start having all the syndromes of modern industrial society. Living indoors you go soft right away. I wish I could still stay outside and just live life as it comes along, but unfortunately now I’m pension age. And money changes you. I have an income.

Besides James, several other participants in the Here At Home films make statements that seem to reinforce the popular assumption that homelessness is a choice. If this assumption is true, how can a program like At Home possibly succeed? If it’s not true, what’s behind these statements?

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A still from the Here At Home film, "Evicted"

The Housing First approach at the heart of the At Home study was created by Dr. Sam Tsemberis in NYC back in the early 90s. He was born in Greece, immigrated to Montreal with his family when he was eight, and later moved to New York for graduate studies. In addition to his many other duties, he is now serving as a consultant to the At Home study. A charismatic and engaging personality, he agreed to speak with me over the phone a few weeks ago and I’ve excerpted a portion of that conversation.

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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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A still from the Here At Home film, "Will to Live"

Paula Goering is not only the lead researcher of the At Home/Chez Soi study, she and Senior Executive staff from the Mental Health Commission of Canada headed the team that designed it. We’ve consulted her many times while creating this web documentary and have come to admire her remarkable ability to blend compassion with scientific rigour. Despite a hectic schedule, she agreed to be interviewed over the phone a few weeks ago. This article is a very small excerpt from that conversation. More will follow.  

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