Five Days, Five Solutions (Part 3)

As part of last week’s Five Days for the Homeless fundraiser, held by the Business Students Society at the University of Regina, we thought it might be a good idea to supplement fundraising efforts with some conversations about how we as a community can contribute to ending homelessness in our community.

Despite our best efforts to finish on time, our blog-writer Tyler came down with the flu and was not able to finish the series during last week’s timeframe. As a result, we will finish the series this week. We’ve previously talked about the the principles that govern Carmichael Outreach and the lack of long-term financial strategy in addressing homelessness through government programs. Today, we wanted to talk about another key piece of the conversation around homelessness – addictions and mental illness.

Addiction is often associated with the experience of homelessness, but more often as a cause of, rather than a potential symptom. The implied conotation is often that it is the addiction that causes homelessness rather than the addiction as a result of homelessness. There are certainly circumstances where the former is true, but according to research, the latter is far more prevalant. An example of this can be found in a research report produced by where studies found that in 67% of shelter users in studied locales reported a “diagnosed lifetime mental illness.” In the same report, shelter users in major urban centres in Canada reported a lifetime diagnosed substance abuse problem (68%), and in another locale nearly 50% reported having used an illicit substance in the past month. While there is no guarantee that these conditions are always present simultaneously, “almost all shelter users” reported a concurrent or dual diagnosis (addictions and mental illness). In short, for the members of our communities that experience homelessness, mental illness and addictions often go hand in hand.

The above mentioned study also found that homeless individuals experiencing these conditions were likely to remain homeless for longer periods of time. There are several explanations offered, but aside from obvious reasons of difficulty personally maintaining housing (tenancy skills, fiscal management, etc.) a lack of support was noted as a substantial difference in the coping resources individuals had when they experienced mental difficulties. In short, many homeless folks are self-medicating through available means in an effort to experience relief from the concurrent problems of mental illness and addictions. A lack of available social supports contributes to an on-going cycle that causes continued separation and stigmatization from broader community and significantly reduces the likelihood of acquiring and maintaining housing.

Housing First, as discussed in (Part 2) of this blog offers an answer to this by supporting individuals facing these chalelnges. The report can be found on our webpage, but research into Canadian programs indicates that within 3 months of having housing, 17% of individuals in the same studied locales had quit drinking and 31% had quit using drugs – all within three months of receiving housing and necessary social supports. Additionally, usage of high cost services had drastically decreased and individuals reported less stress, and a better outlook on life. These results continue to build upon our case for respect, dignity, and effective long-term supports in Parts 1 & 2 of our blog.

In our day-to-day operations, our support for those fighting addictions and experiencing mental illness has several layers. First, we offer a Needle Exchange Program that is designed to prevent dirty needles from remaining on the street in order to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, and to provide a friendly, trusted face to those experiencing addiction. The program is rooted in the principles of harm reduction and is closely connected to Detox programs and services and is staffed by Public Health Nurses. Additionally, we offer a Healing Circle on Monday Mornings, a Narcotics Anonymous group on Friday mornings, and referrals to mental health and addictions services.

For Part 3 of Five Days, Five Solutions, we advocate for greater investment in addictions programs and services that do not exacerbate the cycle of addictions and mental illness, but for programs rooted in the principles of harm reduction such as our needle exchange programs in Regina, or InSite in Vancouver through the Pacific Coastal Health Region, and services that respect the humanity of the individuals they serve. The results speak for themselves – nearly 90% of folks are able to maintain housing with necessary social supports. Once housing stability is achieved, communities see significant reductions in high-cost services. Additionally, services rooted in harm reduction and offered through avenues such as housing first report nearly twice the success rate of treatment first models in helping individuals maintain housing.

As we have stated in both previous posts, we must destigmatize the experiences of individuals facing homelessness and its various challenges in our communities. It is quite likely that further stigmatization will lead to continued and chronic cycles of substance abuse, mental illness and housing instability. We can do better, we must do better.

Research mentioned in this post can be found at:

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