Experiences of Social Connection and Sense of Community Amongst Participants of Housing First Programming




Stevenson, Jynene

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In a recent report on the state of homelessness in Canada, it is estimated that at least 200,000 Canadians access homeless emergency services or sleep outside per year, with approximately 30, 000 homeless on any given night (Gaetz, Donaldson, Richter, Gulliver, 2013, 5). A strategy to address homelessness is Housing First. Housing First is an evidenced-based housing intervention strategy which provides homeless individuals with immediate access to housing and supports. A unique feature of this program is that participants are offered immediate housing of their choice. Prior to the introduction of Housing First, housing intervention strategies focused on “housing readiness” and often required sobriety or psychiatric treatment prior to entry. The Housing First approach has demonstrated significant recovery, cost savings and housing retention rates in The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC) At Home/Chez Soi project—one of the world’s largest research studies utilizing a randomized control trial to study the outcomes of the Housing First approach. The At Home/Chez Soi project operated in five cities across Canada; Toronto, Montreal, Moncton, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Approximately 14% of At Home/Chez Soi participants had three or more moves and a portion of individuals in the MHCC’s study struggled to achieve stable housing. In an early findings report released by the MHCC one of the main themes that emerged from qualitative interviews conducted by At Home/Chez Soi project researchers included “changes in the social aspects of day to day life” once acquiring housing. Some of these changes were described to be negative. This finding highlights the impacts that the acquisition of housing may have on the experiences of Housing First participants. This demonstrates a need for further research to explore how social experiences relate to housing retention and mental health recovery in Housing First programming. In this research, I address this gap by focusing on understanding the social experiences of participants of Housing First programming for whom the transition into stable housing was difficult. More specifically, I ask “In relation to factors that impact housing retention, what is the experience of social connection and sense of community for a group of participants who had difficulty transitioning into housing provided through the At Home/Chez Soi Housing First program?” In this thesis, I present qualitative findings from narratives collected from 5 participants of the At Home/Chez Soi project for whom the transition to stable tenancy was difficult. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with five participants who had a range of experiences with housing retention including one participant who remained in their first apartment, and four others who had between 1-4 moves during their involvement in the At Home/Chez Soi project. In this research, I explored whether the fundamental needs of social connection and sense of community are instrumental in producing positive outcomes such as mental health recovery and housing retention in Housing First programming. Using narrative methodology and interpretive description, I further explore how the unmet needs of social connection and sense of community can assist in understanding the challenges experienced by individuals who struggle to transition into stable housing. The findings demonstrate that participants experienced a shift in social connection and sense of belonging to the “street”, to a feeling of connection to the housed community. All of the participants expressed wanting to disassociate themselves from the DTES. This was difficult because of stigmatization particularly on the part of the landlords and neighbours in their new communities. Discriminatory treatment in their housing served to reinforce negative feelings of self. The process of shifting to a sense of belonging to the housed community presented additional challenges, such as periods of isolation and/or being in the difficult position of saying “no” to friends in order to preserve their tenancy by abiding by the rules of the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA). Participants overcame these challenges by making adjustments in meeting their social needs. Some ways that participants demonstrated resilience included connecting with professionals, creating community in local shops, setting boundaries with old friends, and in some instances, cutting off from old friends. I conclude that social connection is paramount for these individuals. I also contend that the participants are resourceful in ensuring these needs are met. Recommendations for new or existing Housing First programming are made to ensure sensitivities and practices are geared to supporting these connections including offering flexibility and choice around locations and activities for weekly meetings with case managers. Other recommendations, specific to the transition into housing include incorporating a survey of important shops or services during the housing search process, and ensuring a good landlord-tenant fit during the housing selection process.



Housing First, Intensive Case Management, Homelessness, Mental Health, At Home/Chez Soi Project