by Lisa Ker
Back in the late 1970’s a project called Conservation House in Saskatchewan highlighted the use of air tightness and “heat recycling” to manage energy consumption. It was one of the first demonstration projects of its kind in North America and achieved a benchmark of 85% less energy required than a standard home for heating and cooling. At the time, the research behind its success did not manage influence Canadian building codes to any large degree. It did, however, make its way to Germany, where “Passive Houses” were designed and built beginning in the 1990s. While Passive House construction is increasingly being used in the private housing market today, the application of its principles to publicly-funded housing has been less common.
At about the same time Conversation House was built, new approaches were being studied in an entirely different field. Individuals living in psychiatric hospitals were introduced to new treatments which shortened their hospital stays and allowed them to move into the community. While a step in the right direction, simply releasing people without appropriate supports often resulted in rapid breakdown in mental health and then re-hospitalization. In response, mental health professionals, along with family members and friends of people with mental illness developed new ways to provide supportive living arrangements. Their approach of combining affordable housing with other rehabilitative services assisted persons recovering from mental illnesses to regain their health and integrate into the community. Ottawa Salus, a local organization, was an early example of what became known as supportive housing.
40 years later, there has been positive change supported by our community’s growing understanding of mental illness. Statistics like ‘1 in 5’ inform popular campaigns to raise awareness that the stigma of mental illness is not only inappropriate and outdated, it is a barrier to mental wellness. Yet many individuals with serious illnesses such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia still end up living on the margins of society and too often, on the street. A lack of permanent quality affordable housing forces individuals into instability or into situations where they must live at a subsistence level, depending upon others or confined to hospitals, reminiscent of decades past. The price of their housing is their own independence. And it is a cost we all bear as members of one community.
Ask anyone what their home means to them, and that person would likely list many things beyond simple shelter. Supportive housing can make housing a home for hundreds of Ottawa’s most marginalized citizens. While hospitals treat individuals in crisis, the stability that is gained from supportive housing decreases the need for hospitalization. And supportive housing is not only affordable for individuals who pay rent as tenants, it is far less costly to the taxpayer.
Lisa Ker is the Executive Director of Ottawa Salus Corporation. Ottawa Salus offers housing, community support services, and rehabilitation programs for individuals aged 16 or older with serious mental illness.