A home of one’s own to heal heart and soul


In the street, where she lived, nobody knew that Terry’s* singing voice could touch hearts. Then, one day, the
lady who had helped her find her new home asked her to sing at the Christmas party of her working group. She was such a big hit that, soon after, at age 50, Terry saw a childhood dream come true when she was one of the finalists in a singing competition organized by a Quebec TV station.

Terry is one of the some 150 mentally ill homeless people who have found a home as part of At Home – a research demonstration project providing housing and services in an effort to assess the factors promoting housing stability while ensuring the well-being of homeless people dealing with mental health problems.

“We were inspired by Housing First in New York, which helps homeless people with high needs, and by Street to Home, in Toronto, which helps people with moderate needs,” explains Cécile Leclercq, Ph.D., coordinator of Montréal’s At Home project. In fact Montréal launched this program at the same time as the cities of Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Moncton.

Since this is also a research project, the 460 participants are divided into experimental and control groups: 200 of the 300 people with “moderate” needs will be offered housing and services from the At Home intervention team (the experimental group), while the 100 others (the control group) will continue to rely on community *not her real name services. The 160 homeless people with more pressing needs have been divided into two equal cohorts, half in an experimental group and half in a control group.

“Our research team will meet with all the participants every three months for two years to assess their situation,” adds Leclercq, noting that the Montréal project also includes three clinical teams and a group responsible for finding  housing through an agreement with more than forty housing owners.

Planting the seeds

The seeds for this project were planted in 2007 by a Health Canada official who shared his concerns about the mentally ill  homeless with former senator Michael Kirby, the chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (which funds the At Home project). “With the help of researchers, Mr. Kirby developed a more extensive project than had been proposed by the Health Canada official,” explains Eric Latimer, Ph.D., a researcher working on the Services, Policy and Population Health theme at the Douglas Institute and chief researcher for Montréal’s At Home project.

Latimer’s team is composed of caregivers and researchers from the Jeanne-Mance health and social services centre, the Diogène community organization, the Douglas Institute, and five Quebec universities. They began recruiting participants in fall 2009.

“Participants are referred to us by shelters  prisons, community organizations, and hospitals, and our research officers/interviewers are also present in the field,” adds Leclercq, the project coordinator. Participants are not left to their own devices in their new homes, she notes. With the help of a caregiver who meets with them at least once a week, they set goals based on their own strengths.

“We favour the recovery approach,” explains Leclercq, who naturally hopes that the housing and clinical follow-up will continue after the project ends. And while the results are not yet in, the At Home project is already yielding results – such as the participant who, after living for years in the street, is now superintendent of the building where he was given a home.