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 Here At Home.

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 was the largest of its kind in the world. The theory it tested: there’s a way to end homelessness for people with mental illness and it starts with giving them homes.

Because the study recently came to an end, we asked the Chair of the Mental Health Commission, Dr. David Goldbloom to reflect on the project as a whole. Besides his role at the Commission, Dr. Goldbloom is the Senior Medical Advisor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

It’s hard to believe that just five years ago, the federal government made a decision to invest in the cause of homelessness among people with mental illness in a major way. And they turned to the newly created Mental Health Commission of Canada to design and run an unprecedented social experiment.

And make no mistake – this was a research study, carefully designed and executed, but one that had the potential to change the lives of the participants and to generate knowledge that could help many more people long after the study came to an end (as it did April 1, 2013).

If you were looking for a justification of the creation of the Mental Health Commission, At Home/Chez Soi was one. Here was a national body – not a federal, provincial or territorial government – who could operate outside of the constitutional framework of health to stimulate and lead an amazing collaboration.

Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton – each of them had a significant problem with homelessness among people with mental illness, with local variation in the nature of the problem. Try to imagine the challenge of recruiting people to participate in a scientific study when they were already homeless and facing various types of mental illnesses.

And yet, over 2,000 Canadians in these five cities chose to participate by being randomly assigned to either the experimental intervention or to treatment as usual. The experimental intervention, “Housing First”, involves very quickly providing people with a choice of furnished housing without first being treated for their illness, based on the argument that it’s hard to engage someone in treatment when they are on the streets and based on evidence from other jurisdictions.

For some, taking part meant a new lease not simply on an apartment but on life itself, a chance to recover dignity, to engage in treatment, to avoid the jail/ER/shelter cycle, and even to reconnect with long-lost family. The study has not been without its challenges, but has also taught us many important things.

While this study didn’t invent Housing First – now we will have made-in-Canada high-quality evidence about it, including who it helps and who it doesn’t. We already know from interim analysis of the data (the final data analysis should be available by the end of the year) that for people who are “frequent flyers” in the cycle of jail/ER/shelter, there is money to be saved with a Housing First approach.

I have had the privilege of meeting some of the participants and being a guest in their homes. And they are indeed homes in the sense of the pride people take in a place of their own. It’s a moving experience and an important step in working toward stability, productivity, and recovery.

Five years ago, the spring federal budget announced $110 million as the investment in At Home/Chez Soi. Now the project is coming to an end, and five years later – there is another significant investment in this year’s budget released on March 21st. It included an unprecedented $600 million over the next five years for its Homelessness Partnership Strategy, based on the Housing First model, and acknowledging the influence of the evidence from At Home/Chez Soi.

Internationally, in France, a similar study using the same instruments is in place based on the At Home/Chez Soi approach.

It has been a five-year journey from idea to design to research to outcomes to policy and action. For some people, it is tragically too late. But we now have more reason – and evidence – to be hopeful for a better future for people with mental illness who find themselves without that most basic of needs: a home.