SHIMI is an innovative solution to a pressing community need for individuals who are living with mental illness and in need of supportive housing options. The project provides high quality, secure and independent housing together with a range of responsive supports to adults living, and recovering from, a mental illness.
Identifying Existing Barriers
Persons living with mental illness are frequently marginalized and vulnerable, continuously challenged to find decent housing at an affordable cost. Many live in substandard apartments, partly because of the dynamic of private sector market rent levels and partly because of the shelter allowances provided by the Provincial Income Assistance Program. In addition, persons with mental illness continue to experience discrimination in their community. They are often shunned because of the visible signs of poverty, the presentation of symptoms, and the general misconceptions that many have about mental illness (propensity to violence, irrational actions and or beliefs, criminal intent associated with drug use, etc).
Suitable apartments and the associated utilities which can be fully paid from the shelter allowance portion of income assistance are very rare. Average market rents for 1-bedroom apartments can run in the $575-per-month range or more and utilities may be an additional cost. Apartments that rent for appreciably less than this generally have some compelling reason that they cannot command average market rent. Principally this will be because of their physical condition or because of their location.
These individuals frequently experience housing insecurity (couch surfing), living in substandard accommodation, low income and social exclusion.
While successfully confronting any one of these issues would be a challenge, combined they can lead to a poor quality of life. The risk of homelessness is high.
It Starts At Home
There is now a considerable body of evidential research to support the advantages of, and the need for, community-based support for individuals living with mental illness to change these outcomes. The level of need and extent of support are determined by the individual. Full partnership, respectful communication, autonomy, choice and stable, decent and flexible housing are the cornerstones of this project.
The voices and experiences of people who live with mental illness have been and will continue to be the driving force of this project.
Supports within the local community are far more effective and efficient than institutionalization or a congregate style housing option for the great majority of this population. Community support options provide persons living with mental illness the possibility of choices. The ability to exercise these choices — thereby creating as independent a lifestyle as practical, building self-confidence, empowerment and ontological security — in turn reduces negative impacts of mental illness on the individual, family, friends and the community as a whole. The first building block for community based support is secure housing.
The SHIMI model follows the practice of integrating small numbers of apartments seamlessly and unobtrusively into the community. The housing is secure both in the physical sense and in the financial sense:
- Physical Security: the apartments and buildings are finished to a mid-market standard and professional property management ensures that the rent is collected, the bills paid and quality standards are maintained.
- Financial Security: all shelter costs (rent, heat, power, water) are included for a rent of $535 per month. This is the maximum shelter allowance available to single individuals through the Province of Nova Scotia’s Income Assistance Program. Fixing the rent at the maximum shelter component ensures that the balance of an individual’s income can be used for food, clothing, transportation, etc.
- Furnishings: through the generosity of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia and the Cape Breton Mental Health Foundation, each new apartment is furnished with a full suite of furniture and appliances, including a washer and dryer.
MHS’s first experience with community based housing was through a partnership with the Cape Breton Island Housing Authority, which designated 10 units for individuals living with mental illness. This partnership broke new ground as the mandate of the Housing Authority is to provide housing for families and for seniors, not single adults. These apartment units are in buildings which normally house seniors, and there are sometimes issues with younger individuals fitting in with the other residents. The Housing Authority’s ongoing relationship with MHS staff has been extremely supportive. There have been situations where Housing Authority staff have gone above and beyond normal landlord/tenant relations to keep MHS clients housed through very difficult times, and, as a result, the 10 units have experienced a very low turn-over rate. The current high demand for the Authority’s apartments precludes MHS accessing additional apartments.
The SHIMI coalition’s first apartments were occupied in 2007, with the acquisition and renovation of 9 units funded by the Homelessness Partnership Strategy of Human Resource Development Canada.
New Dawn, through its non-profit housing agency, the Cape Breton Association for Housing Development, acted as the sponsoring agency for the initiative. With NDE continuing its role, further acquisitions were 4 apartments in 2009 and 9 apartments in 2011 which included the first with 2 bedrooms.
Our 22 units would not have been acquired, renovated and furnished without the program funding and capital contributions of the HRSDC Homeless Partnership Strategy, Affordable Housing Initiative of the Province of Nova Scotia, Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Mental Health Foundation and New Dawn Enterprises. In addition to these financial grants, the Province of Nova Scotia also transferred ownership of a 3-unit building at no cost to the SHIMI initiative.
While the 32 apartments is a good start, the number of persons in the greater Sydney area living with severe and persistent mental illness is estimated at 200. Crossroads Clubhouse has a current membership of 170 which would support this estimation. Of course many do not have a housing problem, either residing with family or having a regular income that will support them in adequate and affordable accommodation.
However very many do have a housing problem. The estimate of MHS is that as many as 50 individuals are still in critical need of safe and affordable housing and for the reasons outlined above these individuals are severely challenged to find suitable accommodation in the private sector. Only by building up a much larger dedicated portfolio of suitable apartments will the needs of this population be fully met.
Martin is an elderly man living with a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia who was on the verge of eviction once again. He was facing homelessness due, in part, to symptoms of his mental illness. In the past these symptoms have triggered incidences that were not understood by his landlord. Martin’s living environment contributed to increased feelings of depression resulting in decreased mental health wellness.
“Since I have been living with SHIMI, I have experienced many good things. I have good neighbours who live in the other apartments in the building. We are all on a tight budget but we are able to support each other by sharing. Most important for me is that I feel safe here. The landlord of SHIMI has been very helpful to me, they keep the place in good condition. I will often clean up around the yard to help keep things looking nice. I like to have my home look nice. I love my apartment, it is clean, warm and safe. I feel like this is my Home.”
At its core SHIMI works to provide safe, affordable housing for persons with mental illness living in the community. It places great emphasis on providing a dignified and improved quality of life. But while the main issue being addressed is homelessness, underlying the provision of improved shelter is the significant difference of acknowledging and ‘understanding’ the struggles of living with a mental illness and the impact it has on sustaining and maintaining decent housing. SHIMI has proven to make a difference in the lives of those we serve. Martin’s story is a prime example.
Martin’s former one-room apartment was unfit for living: leaks, rodents, a lack of heat supplied by the landlord. Most of our visits to Martin’s apartment found him wearing his winter jacket with scarf and hat, as he slept this way each night. Leaks in the ceiling from an overflowing toilet upstairs gave off a smell of urine in a closet kitchen area. Rodents in his only closet forced him to stuff paper between the door and floor of the closet in the hopes that the rodents wouldn’t come out.
These situations were not those of paranoia but an often existing reality for Martin. Once again he wouldn’t unpack any of his meager belongings; this place, like all the other apartments, would not be home. Martin would not complain about these conditions to the landlord. He was paying $550 from his $735 Social Assistance check and he did not want to find himself on the street again. He had few options. Unfortunately, Martin’s situation is not an unusual circumstance for the many people that SHIMI serves: many remain silent for fear of eviction if they voice concern or complaints regarding any housing issues.
Martin has been provided with a newly constructed apartment (through funding by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s Homelessness Partnership Strategy), and at a cost that will not affect the remainder of Martin’s monthly budget, meaning for example he doesn’t have to tap into grocery money to pay his rent or his utilities. The apartment comes with new appliances and furnishings, including Martin’s first new bed, and provides safety, support, warmth. Most importantly, it provides a renewed sense of pride, dignity, and a sense of stability. Martin still has issues related to his mental illness but now resides in an independent living environment where his illness is understood by those who support him and who are his neighbours. Martin’s illness is not an issue of shame that will have him evicted.
On a visit with Martin shortly after he moved in to his new SHIMI unit we were greeted at the door by a man dressed comfortably in his jeans and sweatshirt. Martin no longer needed his winter jacket indoors! That is success.
Joyce MacLeod, MSW, RSW
SHIMI Housing Co-ordinator