Alden Wiebe grossed his first million dollars in his early twenties.
But by 54, he was homeless.
In the seven years before he was laid off, Wiebe, now 61, was an advertising salesman with a $75,000 annual salary. When he lost his job, he tried coping by travelling across North America and spending all of his savings. When he returned to Winnipeg, he had nothing left.
At one time, Wiebe owned a newer Mercedes-Benz. But in 2010, he was living in an abandoned 1960s-era Mercedes, behind Dias Auto on McPhillips Street.
“I had seen cars in behind there and I thought if that car is still there and if I’m going to be on the street then I don’t want to be outdoors,” he said. “I’d rather have a car to sleep in.”
The location was convenient for Wiebe. He was a short walk from a number of restaurants where he scrounged up enough money to eat.
“I collected beer cans and drive-thru change,” Wiebe said. “I would always go through the drive-thru a couple times a day and pick up whatever change was there.”
Wiebe survived that winter — barely. His physical health deteriorated as he lost 32 pounds and his diabetes plagued him. Not only that, his mental health also began to decline.
Wiebe went to the Health Sciences Centre emergency room three times over the course of eight months.
First, a nurse asked if he needed bus tickets to Siloam Mission. The next time, the same nurse threw a sandwich to him. After the third try, Wiebe saw a doctor who didn’t offer help, even after 18 hours of waiting.
“All they saw was this homeless person.”
Wiebe gave up and decided to kill himself. He jumped off the footbridge at Assiniboine Park.
“I was hoping for undertow,” he said. “It didn’t catch me, and here I am.”
Wiebe finally found an emergency room doctor at St. Boniface Hospital who would help him. After spending time at another hospital, he put his pride aside and agreed to take up residence at Salvation Army.
That was where Wiebe became a candidate for At Home/Chez Soi — a housing first program for people on the streets dealing with mental illness.
And, even though Wiebe ultimately wasn’t chosen to be in the program, his story doesn’t end there.
The Housing First Solution
In 1992, Dr. Sam Tsemberis, a Columbia University psychiatry researcher, created Pathways to Housing in New York City. His housing first program, still running today, was aimed at helping those on the streets with psychiatric disabilities and addictions.
Since it began, Pathways to Housing has branched out with three partner organizations in the United States.
The housing first approach eventually moved to Canada and Medicine Hat, AB has seen great success with it, nearly ending homelessness in that small city with a population of 60,000.
The state of Utah also saw a significant decrease in homelessness using the approach.
The housing first model works best among those with mental health issues, said Jino Distasio, researcher and innovation director at the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies. He said supports are already in place for those who are homeless for other reasons.
“Housing cannot end all types of homelessness,” Distasio said in a recent interview. “Housing first is a mental health intervention focused on a specific population — persons who are on the streets struggling with mental illness who often were missed by the system.”
Distasio said in the past the provision of shelter was conditional. People had to get clean before they were allowed to sleep in a bed.
“The old model of addressing homelessness, especially for those with mental illness, was that it was sort of a treatment first model — treat the person, get them stable, and then introduce housing,” Distasio said.
While Siloam Mission’s The Madison in Wolseley (a supportive housing facility) is similar to housing first, it groups people with much the same needs in one building to integrate residents back into the community and build self-esteem with the help of on-site support.
The difference with housing first is that people request where they want to live in Winnipeg (typically in apartments), returning to their former communities, where case managers routinely visit participants.
At Home/Chez Soi began in 2009, shortly before Alden Wiebe became homeless. The Mental Health Commission of Canada launched the pilot project and study in five Canadian cities — Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Moncton and Winnipeg.
At Home/Chez Soi put 513 people in Winnipeg into housing. In the last six months of the program in 2013, 73 per cent of Winnipeg participants were housed some or all of the time, according to a final report.
Although he fit the criteria, Wiebe was not chosen to participate in the randomized study, so he and his new partner Charlene Gouldhawke, who he met at Salvation Army, moved out of the shelter without assistance. They currently live in a small apartment on Ellice Avenue.
Despite At Home/Chez Soi not placing Wiebe, he saw the impact the initiative had on his friends’ lives and he eventually became an intensive case manager with the program. He would check up on residents, take them out for coffee and drive them to appointments.
Wiebe said while he doesn’t make a lot of money, there’s nothing that can take him away from working with people who were once in his position.
“I had the opportunity to go back to advertising and make a lot more money. At times I regret it because myself and my partner struggle for money all the time and we live precariously at times, but I can’t stop doing it.”
Wiebe now works with organizations like the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and United Way of Winnipeg to make sure mental health is at the forefront when dealing with people experiencing homelessness.
He has also received a 2015 Heroes of Mental Health Award from the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Distasio said success in Winnipeg proves the need for housing first initiatives.
“To me, shelters are short term,” he said. “Housing first is an outcome of the need to end homelessness.”
The Cost of Homelessness
While At Home/Chez Soi tested housing first here, Winnipeg didn’t have a concrete strategic plan to end it like other Canadian cities did.
In 2014, End Homelessness Winnipeg, a task force led by United Way of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council, came up with a 10-year plan to eliminate the problem. The plan includes preventing homelessness and increasing the housing supply.
“If it gets to the end of the month, and an individual isn’t able to make their rent, the best solution to that is to pay the rent,” said Louis Sorin, president and CEO of End Homelessness Winnipeg. “If they don’t pay the rent, and themselves and their family become homeless, it might take weeks, if not months, to get them back into a home.”
Sorin said families in that situation are put on housing waiting lists, they use shelters and other programming, and some lose their jobs.
“Paying the rent is a very small price compared to what could happen if you don’t.”
Housing first is also cheaper than letting a person fend for themselves on the street, using resources that cost the government and taxpayers money.
It costs $22,257 a year to house someone with high needs, according to the At Home/Chez Soi study. For someone with moderate needs, it costs $14,177.
Distasio said people who remain on the street use up a lot of finite resources — like shelters and emergency rooms — that cost money and time.
“If 20 high-needs users in a given month are interacting with police for reasons like public intoxication or acting disorderly, that’s 20 or more police hours that are better used to focus in on other crime or respond to somebody quicker. Same with paramedics.”
Despite the program helping people in need of mental health supports, only 9.8 per cent of Winnipeggers on the street said their first experience with homelessness was because mental or physical health issues and 15.3 per cent said it happened because of addiction, according to the recent Winnipeg Street Census.
On Oct. 25, 2015, teams of volunteers scoured the streets and found at least 1,400 people were experiencing homelessness.
They found 479 people experiencing absolute homelessness — either spending the night outside or in emergency shelters. The remaining 921 were provisionally accommodated, including 281 people in transitional housing, like housing first, for less than a year.
While many people who are homeless in our city are indoors at night, there is still a lot of work to be done, according to Sorin.
“We shouldn’t be competing to see who gets more shelter beds,” Sorin said. “That’s not going to fix the problem if we’re going to exit homelessness.”
Sorin said one of the biggest obstacles, is opening the eyes of people in the community, to help them understand why people become homeless.
“There are myths about people who struggle with homelessness — things like ‘they’re aggressive,’ or that ‘these individuals are dangerous,’ or that you should be worried about them. In this community, we’re more willing to help a stray cat that’s sleeping on the sidewalk at night than we are a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk at night.”