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Housing support team 'hope'-ful about tackling homelessness in Saint John

Members of the H.O.P.E. Team at the Fresh Start organization in Saint John are Misty Schofield, left, Taylor Cole and Sara Graham. They help people who are living on the streets transition to permanent housing. (Julia Wright/CBC  - image credit)
Members of the H.O.P.E. Team at the Fresh Start organization in Saint John are Misty Schofield, left, Taylor Cole and Sara Graham. They help people who are living on the streets transition to permanent housing. (Julia Wright/CBC - image credit)

An outreach team in Saint John says it's having success helping unhoused people become housed.

Thirty-four people have moved into apartments with the support of Fresh Start's H.O.P.E. Team, which stands for Housing Opportunities for People to Excel, since it was established in October 2022, according to the organization.

As of December, only one of those people had since been evicted, said social worker and team co-ordinator Misty Schofield.

That's despite the fact that the team's clientele have previously been chronically homeless and also have issues such as mental illness, substance use and cognitive impairment, she said.

Building relationships with clients, community

The H.O.P.E. Team is based on the "housing-first" approach to dealing with homelessness.

They start by meeting people, building relationships with them and putting them into units.

Sometimes this means driving around at night looking for people on the streets.

They work with landlords "who want to be part of the solution," said Schofield.

A member of the H.O.P.E. Team cleans an apartment after a client moves out.
A member of the H.O.P.E. Team cleans an apartment after a client moves out.

A member of the H.O.P.E. Team cleans an apartment after a client moves out. (Submitted by Misty Schofield)

The team shares accountability with the tenant, checks on them and picks up slack as they develop basic skills and routines.

"People who've been homeless for a really long time have trouble getting into the flow of things," such as putting out the trash on garbage day, Schofield said.

"If anything starts to become an issue that could be a tenancy issue we will come and do dishes or take people to do laundry if there's a buildup of laundry."

They even unclog toilets.

Landlords Ryan and Ashley Ackroyed have worked with the H.O.P.E. Team since their company, Arctic Owl, took over management of a property that housed one of the team's clients.

Landlord Ryan Ackroyed says he's had good experiences renting to formerly homeless clients of the H.O.P.E. Team.
Landlord Ryan Ackroyed says he's had good experiences renting to formerly homeless clients of the H.O.P.E. Team.

Landlord Ryan Ackroyed says he's had good experiences renting to formerly homeless clients of the H.O.P.E. Team. (Submitted by Ryan Ackroyed)

"It worked out well," said Ryan.

They now call on each other regularly when units are needed or available  — one of a few companies to do so, said Schofield.

During the crucial transition period into housing, which takes a month or two, the H.O.P.E. Team checks on its clients "constantly," he said.

"If there's any issue with anything ... they have a 24-7 phone ... You call them and they're right there.

"They're fixing the damage, but also fixing the root cause."

It's quite a contrast from the Ackroyeds' previous experience with a subsidized tenant through another program.

"He had a place to live, but he had no support. He slept on the floor on a mattress in the middle of the room … and ended up having a mental episode and completely trashed the place."

Before and after shots of fire damage repaired and cleaned by the H.O.P.E. Team. They take on the cost of fixing up any apartment damage deemed to be their client's fault.
Before and after shots of fire damage repaired and cleaned by the H.O.P.E. Team. They take on the cost of fixing up any apartment damage deemed to be their client's fault.

Before and after shots of fire damage repaired and cleaned by the H.O.P.E. Team. They take on the cost of fixing up any apartment damage deemed to be their client's fault. (Submitted by Misty Schofield)

Members of the H.O.P.E. Team take their clients out shopping for groceries and make sure they're taking their medication, said Ryan.

They hand out their numbers to neighbours in the building saying, "Call me if there are any issues. Call me if you see anything. Let me show you how amazing these people are and how we're going to take care of them."

"It makes it so easy to help," he said.

More landlords would "absolutely" want to take in homeless tenants if they had access to this kind of support, said Ryan.

After the basics like shelter and food are taken care of, the team helps plan for the client's wellness goals.

A lived-in H.O.P.E. Team client unit.
A lived-in H.O.P.E. Team client unit.

A lived-in H.O.P.E. Team client unit. (Submitted by Misty Schofield)

They liaise with other community agencies, individual community members and the Department of Social Development.

Schofield is encouraged to see so many different organizations and levels of government working together for the first time to address homelessness.

It's not obvious how many people are exiting homelessness because of the growing number of people on the streets, she said, but a lot of good things are happening.

Teammate and housing support specialist Sara Graham said she has witnessed "super positive changes" for clients.

It all starts with building trust, she said — which can take time.

She gave the example of a person who was living in a tent and had a "pretty significant burn on probably half of his forearm," but refused to go to the hospital.

The team does lots of wound care, she said, in tents, parking lots and on roadsides.

"We spent close to two months going every day, cleaning his wound and changing his bandages."

It took that long before he would even reveal his name.

"That was a huge moment," she said.

'People will surprise you'

After getting a taste of the way homeless people are treated — being yelled at and having a Christmas tree thrown at her while doing her job — Graham appreciates the wariness a homeless person may feel when meeting a new person.

Homeless people are often unfairly considered dangerous for doing what they have to do to survive, she said.

"Given the opportunity, people will surprise you."

It's been "really cool," to see people who've had troubled relationships with some agencies in the past turn that around, said Graham.

"Some of these people are some of the best people I've ever met in my entire life."

"Everyone should have a chance to be seen like that and not as a burden," she said.

After doing this front-line work for over a year, Schofield believes very few people who are living on the street today are beyond help to become housed.

One person they housed last winter had previously spent his whole life in and out of homelessness and institutions across Canada, ever since being sent to the Kingsclear reform school as a youth, she said.

Most people would have thought it was "crazy" to try, said Schofield, but the H.O.P.E. Team built a "really good" relationship with him.

Currently, the only other member of the team is Taylor Cole, a housing support worker. She takes people for groceries, to appointments and provides support at court appearances.

A fourth person is expected to join the team by April, Schofield said.

Each member can have 10 to 15 clients, she said, but the number of people they can house is heavily dependent on provincial rent subsidies.

"The province cannot always provide enough subsidies in a timely manner, but they are aware of our needs and we continue to work together towards ensuring that we can sustainably house as many people as our program allows."