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

For today’s post we matched the Vancouver film, “Heart of Hell” with Josh Evans, assistant professor of Human Geography at Athabasca University. Evans’ research focuses on housing, urban social policy, and spaces of care. He has published widely on topics such as harm reduction, supportive housing and homelessness. 

“Living here has been kinda hell, so I’m really glad I’m moving.” These simple, poignant and affecting words aptly describe the beginning of a new chapter in Leanne’s life. Leanne’s story resonates with the experiences of many homeless people who often feel trapped, stuck and hopeless. Iain De Jong, a Housing First specialist, often compares this entrenchment to that of a ‘black hole.’ After prolonged periods without housing, individuals pass a point of no return, becoming so adapted to street life that escape, from their point of view, is unimaginable.  Housing First works against these gravitational forces and offers an escape.

The video focuses on Leanne’s move out of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood. The power of ‘place’ is particularly salient in this regard. There is growing scientific evidence that place, be it housing or neighborhoods, is an important social determinant of health. Housing conditions, housing stability, and neighborhood characteristics all impact health in various ways. The extremely poor health outcomes found in the homeless community are indicative of these pathways. These pathways converge in the Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood with some of the worst housing and highest levels of material deprivation in Vancouver.

When it comes to mental illness and chronic homelessness, stable housing and a safe neighborhood are instrumental to the recovery process. A striking dimension of the Housing First approach is client-led relocation, in many cases from poor quality housing or temporary shelters in inner city neighborhoods to permanent, independent housing in better quality neighborhoods. This is but one aspect of the Housing First approach that contributes to improvements in quality of life.

But Leanne’s story reminded me that a place, such as an apartment or a neighborhood, is more than a location characterized by various health benefits or risks. It is also a center of meaning around which people build their lives. In this sense, Leanne’s story conveys the symbolic power unlocked through the simple process of moving; leaving one place, and life, behind to build a new one somewhere else. “Here I can start my life again,” Leanne says, “I am not stuck in the heart of hell.”