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For this, the final post on the Here At Home webdoc blog, we asked Stephen Gaetz for some final thoughts. Gaetz, who has written for us before, is director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and the Homeless Hub. These projects are dedicated to mobilizing homelessness research so that it has a greater impact on policy, planning and service provision, thereby contributing to solutions to end homelessness in Canada. Dr. Gaetz is also Associate Dean, Research and Professional Development in the Faculty of Education, York University, Toronto.

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. 

The At Home/Chez Soi project is a fantastic example of research impact.  For many years I have argued that our progress on ending homelessness has been impeded by a curious anti-intellectualism – people, often frustrated, would tell me: “We don’t need research – we know what the problem is, and we know what the solution is”.  I used to think: “Wrong! On all counts!”

Now in 2013, we are seeing how research really does matter!  Recently the Homeless Hub (Canadian Homelessness Research Network) in partnership with the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, released “The State of Homelessness in Canada – 2013”, the first national report card on homelessness.  The report paints a pretty grim picture.  At least 30,000 people are homeless in Canada on a given night, and minimally over 200,000 in a given year.  Many others are at risk, as we are suffering from an acute shortage of affordable housing in Canada.  Since the 1990s, we have seen incomes decline for approximately 40% of Canadians, and at the same time housing prices rise and low rent housing becomes more and more scarce.

I would argue that since that time we have become all too comfortable with the presence of homelessness in our communities.  In some cases it is our prejudices that permit us to not care; our belief that people who are homeless choose to be so, or are lazy, or just want to live on benefits (a national poll conducted for the Salvation Army in 2011 suggested as much).  The research does not support any of these beliefs.

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 The Mental Health Commission’s “At Home” experiment has been over for nearly two months now. Here at the NFB, we’ve been following the experiment via a cutting edge webdoc called Here At Home. In the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing a final series of films and preparing to update and archive the site. In the process, we’ll be removing some of the statistics about the beginning of the study to make room for new data. But some of that info is too interesting to lose, so it’s moving here, to the blog. This will be the first in a series of short takes on the five trial cities. Three stills, three quotes and nine stats each. Click on any of the photos to go to the Winnipeg page of our webdoc.

The still above is from the Here At Home film, “I’d Rather Not Talk,” featuring a study participant named Viola. As Michelle Coombs of Elizabeth Fry Toronto noted in an earlier blog post, Viola manages to say as much with her silences as with her speech.

Winnipeg is one of the coldest cities in the world.   In “3 Hots & a Cot” Robert explains how to survive homelessness in a city where winter temperatures can dip as low as -40 C.

Lukas, a service provider with the At Home project, worked for years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Returning to his hometown of Winnipeg, he found that circumstances for the city’s most vulnerable were just as bad there as they were in Vancouver.

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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 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.

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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 Winnipeg film, “The Wound Inside,” with Julia Christensen, Research Fellow with the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research in Yellowknife and SSHRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Geography at the University of British Columbia. Born and raised in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, she explores colonial continuities in the Canadian North and their role in shaping northern homelessness.

The first time I watched “The Wound Inside” by Darryl Nepinak, I was struck at the outset when the film’s protagonist, Lukas, reflects on coming back to Winnipeg, only to be confronted by deep-seated racism he was perhaps naïve to in his younger years. I can relate to the discomfort and disappointment of realizing, for the first time, that a beloved place is flawed and not immune to the kinds of prejudice and exclusion that are easy to say exist somewhere else but not here. Growing up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, I always felt a strong sense of community, and a kind of together-ness that stitched tight seams between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous inhabitants of the city. But more recently, when I moved back to my hometown, I saw the city with new eyes and understood for the first time that, like Winnipeg, the deep wound of colonialism persists unhealed.

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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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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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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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photo by Susan Horodyska

Darryl Nepinak is an accomplished independent filmmaker who works closely with the Aboriginal community of his hometown, Winnipeg. His no-nonsense approach to the Here At Home project has resulted in films of raw, direct intensity. I caught up with him in early May as he was dealing with issues related to his latest work.

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