Saturday, November 28, 2009

Canadian program tackles homelessness among people with mental illnesses

From CTV in Canada:

The Mental Health Commission of Canada is launching a unique national research project, looking for the best way to help homeless people with mental health issues to stay off the streets.

The pilot study, called the At Home/Chez Soi project, involves 2,285 people who are homeless and living with a mental illness in five cities: Moncton, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver.

Just over half the participants will be given a place to live, as well as access to special social services; the rest will receive services that are currently available.

The five-year-long research project aims to find out if giving housing, access to health care, psychological services and employment training leads to better outcomes for people who are mentally ill and homeless.

Dr. Jayne Barker, the director of the project, says the ultimate aim is to find the best way to help the homeless while giving them the freedom to make their own decisions.

"It's providing us a chance to really look at the issue of mental health and homelessness and learn how to better assist the many people on the streets suffering from mental health issues," she told Canada AM Monday.

Each city will have a particular focus; for instance, the needs of urban aboriginals will be highlighted in Winnipeg, while substance abuse problems will be the target in Vancouver.

Barker says program researchers will ask the participants about their physical health, their mental health, and most importantly, will track how long they remain in housing.

"That's a very big piece of it. Typically, that's a very big problem for people, particularly those who are mentally ill and homeless and have been on the street for a number of years," she explains.

Barker says that for decades, the mentally ill were housed in institutions. But when that system began to dissolve, replacement housing programs were never devised -- patients were simply left to find their own way.

"So many of them ended up on the street," she says, noting that of the estimated 300,000 homeless people in Canada, nearly half have a mental health issue.

Michael Kirby, the chair of the mental health commission of Canada, says there are still misconceptions about the kind of person who ends up mentally ill and homeless.

"The reality is that people living on the street come from all kinds of economic backgrounds. It's not simply that they started off at the bottom and stayed there," he told Canada AM.

"In many cases, (they're) people who had perfectly good, normal lives, they became mentally ill, and in many cases, tried to self-medicate. So they developed a substance abuse problem and they ended up on the streets because the services aren't there to deal with them," he said.

Another aim of the study will be to determine whether providing housing to those with mental illness is cost-effective. Previous related research suggests that it is.

A joint report by Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Calgary found each homeless person in B.C. costs taxpayers $55,000 a year in health, social services, and correctional services costs.

If housing and support were offered to these people instead, it would cost the system much less: $37,000 a year -- a 33 per cent savings per person per year.