When in the corporate world, I remember visiting our offices downtown and walking around the homeless on my way to our penthouse suite.

In the blazing heat of the summer or the bitter cold winters with temperatures hitting record lows of -25C, I often wondered why they did not stay in shelters. Acquaintances would warn me not to give them money because instead of charity, I would be feeding their drug habits. Or they would try to convince me that they were part of some elaborate scam to extort money from the sympathetic passerby, when in reality, they were living in a home, with a car and an extensive entertainment system! These stories were few and far between because the reality was that the vast majority were homeless due to mental illness and drug additions.

A transient population, moving through jails and hospitals, only to land back on the streets because shelters and group homes were ill-equipped to handle their behaviours induced by mental illness and drug use.

The homelessness issue only became worse when these individuals were marginalized and ostracized to uninhabitable areas in the community because people didn’t want them near their neighborhood. City councils were tasked with an unwanted, vulnerable population to find safe and affordable housing.

For their families and loved ones, who were no longer capable of housing them, this was an extremely difficult predicament.

I began to wonder: who are we as a society to shun them or ‘pawn’ them off as ‘someone else’s problem?’ People in the community can cast stones, but what if this happened to their loved one?

I imagined what the families must go through: the constant worry when a parent, sibling, grandparent or child is released into the community... How emotionally exhausting it must be. Not to have peace of mind. Not to know if tomorrow if they will still be alive.

For those individuals who stay in shelters or group homes, they run the risk of not being able to sustain daily living without their needs being met to ensure stability in their environment.

I recently read an article how homelessness was eradicated in Finland by adopting the housing first model. Providing shelter without support services or rehabilitation will land the homeless onto the streets, incarcerated or back in the medical system, thus burdening tax payers.

After interviewing the residents across several SupportiveLiving.ca homes, I discovered the majority of them experience long term housing. They remain for many years as a result of the concept behind SupportiveLiving which offers both support and independence to sustain their daily living. Even with the home operators looking after meals and laundry, I noted many of the residents were helping out in small ways, such as collecting garbage or mowing the lawn to give them a sense of productivity and contribution in the residence they live in.

In recent years, campaigns that brought awareness to mental health have made it to mainstream media with the theme surrounding the need to talk openly and educate how mental health is affecting lives in Canada.

I believe the next campaign should revolve around awareness and education about the plight of those with mental illness and their struggles to lead an independent life. Instead of communities fighting to exclude them, we should be fighting how we can live together harmoniously. The irony is if these individuals are not housed, they pose more of a threat to themselves instead of inside a well-managed SupportiveLiving residence that is offering them stability.

I have reached my destination. And where is that? It exists in a now-achieved balance in my life -- between Corporate and Community. I am indebted to my years working in the Corporate space, grateful for the experience, my mentors who encouraged me and the skillset I attained. I just needed to fall into the abyss and claw my way back out to find and embark on the path less travelled; and apply those skills within the community… to finally give back.

This offers meaning for me on a personal level. My purpose. My passion. My perseverance.

My journey on the community train entails many more stops. I promised to share their stories. Residents. Staff. Clients. Community. I can fly high around this mountain and provide a bird’s eye view but they are in the trenches every single day. My next blog series endeavours to relay those stories, to warm your heart and show how each one of them is making a difference when it comes to housing and mental health.

Here is your next train ticket. Will you come and join me?

#housing #mentalhealth #supportiveliving #transformation

Written by Shama Chaudhry, Director of Communications, SupportiveLiving.ca

You can access the audio version of this blog.