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 Vancouver film, “Waiting for Jon” with Jacqueline Kennelly, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University. She is currently completing a 6 year qualitative study on the effects of the Olympic Games and its associated urban development projects on homeless youth in Vancouver, BC and London, UK.

In ‘Waiting for Jon,’ we follow Doug, the Peer Employment Coordinator at the Bosman Hotel in Vancouver, as he works with residents to facilitate their involvement in the daily upkeep of their home. The Bosman Hotel is not a hotel in the tourist sense of the word, but rather a supportive housing structure designed to assist the people who live there to put the pieces of their lives back together and keep them together. As Doug notes, the Bosman “should be the safety net for everyone”, there for those who need help transitioning out of a bad situation, and also there for those who simply cannot live successfully in traditional market housing. Its structure is highly aligned with the principles of ‘housing first’, where people are provided with the basic support that they need in terms of housing and support, which then enables them to take positive steps towards improving their own lives.

The Bosman reminds me of a supportive housing structure that I’ve been working with for the past four years in London, UK, which is specifically focused on housing young people (16-25). The United Kingdom retains the tattered remnants of what was once a strong social housing sector; while battered and bruised thanks to years of cuts, it is still much more integrated than anything we offer in Canada, particularly for young people. The youth I’ve been working with in London are provided with short-term housing, as well as supports in terms of youth workers, employment training, counselling, and advocacy, to help them successfully transition out of the supportive housing and into longer term housing, education, and employment solutions. For some of the youth, it works quite well; for others, it doesn’t. In the face of austerity measures being imposed by governments throughout the UK and Europe, more and more of these young people are falling through the cracks. In other words, the UK is moving in exactly the opposite direction to the ‘housing first’ model, gradually reducing its citizens’ access to housing and running the risk of reproducing the homelessness crisis that has plagued Canada for decades.

What makes the Bosman different from the supportive housing structure I’ve worked with in London is its focus on community building; Doug calls it “community building at its best.” From the short clip of the film, we see Bosman residents engaging in meaningful work – for which they get paid – that helps maintain their building and their own quality of life. As Doug notes, the most rewarding part of his job is “to get folks who others believe can never do work” and to see them not only engage in that work but do progressively harder tasks. The youth I work with in London often end up trapped in the dehumanizing cycle of ‘make-work’ projects and endless processes of training and re-training for jobs that never actually materialize. They are made to believe that if only they work hard enough, they’ll be able to find work, but the reality is that the economy is not structured that way. There are not enough jobs for everyone who wants one. This is one of the structural conditions that leads to homelessness, and it is highly correlated to another one of the major predictors of homelessness, which is one’s social class. Poor people are more likely than middle class or affluent people to end up poor, homeless and jobless. This is not due to any personal shortcomings or faults of the individuals, but is one of the structural patterns that sociologists have long identified as leading to the revictimization of people who are already marginalized. Projects like the Bosman Hotel help cut through those cycles and give people who would otherwise fall through the cracks a shot at a decent life. And as the ‘At Home’ project points out, it is also a much more cost effective way of handling homelessness in Canada.