There are always places to go when you’re homeless. The problem: They generally limit how long you can bunk there. And sometimes you don’t really want to stick around.
“There are usually a lotta guys in the room with stinky feet,” says Tim McGrail, 54, who has spent his share of time in and out of shelters, mainly in downtown Toronto, as well as on couches at friends’ apartments, and even sleeping outdoors.
“I slept on park benches before they put those bars on them. It’s hard to lie down on those,” he says. “But I usually managed to get inside if it was really cold.” Still, when there was violence in one of the shelters he was visiting, McGrail just left. “I’m a gentle giant,” he says. “I don’t get involved in that.”
McGrail hasn’t had an easy life. “I learned to love drugs early,” he says. He started with pot and then moved on to cocaine and crack. “I wasn’t leading a very stable life and I ended up on the streets,” he says.
It wasn’t until 1994 that McGrail was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “I had it all my life, but I never knew I had it,” he says. Now he wonders if he was “self-medicating” as stats show many people with mental illness do.
For years, McGrail had no place to really call home. “I stayed at the Good Shepherd for a month and at Porter Place, too. I’d spend three nights on one friend’s couch and then three nights on another,” he says.
In the shelters, people were generally kind and respectful but, as with anyone staying in a shelter, McGrail had to eat meals on a schedule and privacy was in short supply. He roomed with a friend for awhile, but got kicked out “because the landlord didn’t like me.”
In 2016, he met the people at Housing to Health (H2H), the first housing initiative in York Region that aims to secure housing for the chronically homeless. Last year, the program — supported by York Region, United Way anchor agency Blue Door and local partners LOFT and Krasman Centre — succeeded in housing 30 of its hardest to house community members.
“We try to wrap supports around the individual,” says Cheng. Sometimes that means pointing them to local grocery stores, food banks and community services, and sometimes it means helping them furnish their apartments to make them homey. McGrail, for instance, needed a toaster.
“These places can be really bare-bones in terms of supplies,” says Cheng. “Those are the things that make a difference when it comes to turning a place to live into a real home.”
If a participant’s relationship with a landlord runs into trouble, as it sometimes does, given that many participants have a history of trauma, addiction, and mental health struggles, “we try to help maintain a good relationship,” says Cheng.
Two H2H case workers and two peer support workers (who have lived experience on the streets) check in at intervals with the people who’ve been housed in order to nip problems in the bud. And they spend a lot of time listening to program participants in an attempt to make the program better.
McGrail, for example, recently offered feedback through a fidelity assessment intended to discover how the housing program was working and whether there were any gaps in the services provided. Among his feedback, McGrail indicated he liked that H2H staff checked in on him, it made him feel less lonely, and that they gave him a “hand up instead of a hand out.”
“One of the things we found out through that study is that when people move into a place after being homeless for a long period of time, the first thing they lose is that social connection to other people,” says Cheng.
To combat that issue, Blue Door began offering opportunities for program participants to get together for social events. In future, “we hope to have a peer advisory group that meets regularly to provide feedback,” he adds.
McGrail, who has now been successfully housed for a year, appreciates the opportunity he has been given. He likes to get up on his own time and cook what he wants to eat. And he looks forward to regular visits from the H2H team.
“I live by myself,” he says. “I just lost my mom a month ago, so I don’t really have too many people to talk to. They’re really hands-on people — they don’t just stick you in a room, tell you ‘this is where you live now,’ and then forget about you. They talk to me and they listen, too.”