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Laurier professor wants to change the way Canada approaches homelessness

Laurier Psychology Professor Geoff Nelson started studying mental health when he was training to become a psychologist, and later turned his focus to looking at the kind of housing those with severe mental illness lived in.

He says he was appalled at their housing options, and that many of them eventually became homeless.

When the Mental Health Commission of Canada began a 2-year study on the Housing First approach of homelessness, Nelson became the lead investigator.

The study spanned five cities and had 2,000 participants, and it chose to give homeless people with mental illness supplemented housing first and ask questions later.

Nelson says this is compared to offering the use of a shelter or transitional home in exchange for promising to stay sober, or keep up with medications and therapy.

The study had overwhelmingly positive results, with around 75% of those given immediate housing being able to keep it and becoming more well-adapted and productive in society.

“Everyone deserves to be housed. It should be a basic right or entitlement,” says Nelson. “When people get housed and they make progress, they do want to give back.”

Many who couldn’t function in jobs quite often want to volunteer.

Nelson adds that what has been most satisfying for him after seeing the results of this study, is seeing how it has positively effected policy changes in Canada.

The Federal Government, through Homeless Partnering Strategies, has renewed its stradegies and now expects the majority of funding given towards homelessness problems be given to the housing first approach.

“That’s a major shift,” says Nelson. “Because before, the communities could really do whatever with the funding. There was money going into shelters and transitional housing, a lot of the stuff that we have found is not terribly effective in solving the problem.”

Studies on the housing first method are now being carried out in Europe and Australia, with those countries also starting to adopt the approach.

“It’s kind of become more of a movement, which is really what it takes to address a kind of problem like homelessness and mental health.”

He concludes that even here in Waterloo Region, the Step Home Program uses many elements of housing first and has implemented rent supplements for 40 chronically homeless people, and are in the process of upping that number to 100.