by Michael McGee

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Ottawa branch has been providing housing and housing supports for more than 12 years. The clients that CMHA supports are individuals who are homeless/vulnerably housed and who are challenged with mental health and concurrent disorders. At its inception, CMHA’s housing program provided rent supplements with 5 housing provider partnerships working with an annual rent supplement budget of less than $160,000.00. During this time, CMHA’s housing program received capital funding from the Ministry of Health (2.2 million dollars) to purchase condominium units. CMHA purchased twenty two (22) 1, 2 and one 3 bedroom units throughout the city of Ottawa.

CMHA’s Housing program follows the housing first ideology based on the pathways to housing program in New York that was created by Dr. Sam Sameras. At its base the ideology is simple: provide safe housing for those who are homeless or vulnerably housed; give the tenants a choice of where they want to live; and build the supports around them to allow for long term successful housing. CMHA’s housing first program has evolved over time to allow for an increase in housing stock, an increase in landlord’s willing to become involved in the program, and an increase in partnerships for both housing and supports. As of May 2016, CMHA provides rent supplements and supports (either internally or with community partners) to over 300 clients. CMHA works with more than 85 private landlord and the rent supplement budget has increased to 1.7 million dollars per annum. CMHA has also expanded its condominium program to include 35 condominiums scattered throughout the city of Ottawa. All these units are owned and property managed internally at CMHA.

CMHA takes a strengths based model to the clientele that are supported, thus allowing the client to have an intrical role in the housing and supports required. The rent supplements that are provided are portable, which means the supplement  are not not attached to the unit and stays with the client if they wish to move. The rent supplement is based on a top up to market rent. If the client is on ODSP and their housing portion is $479/month (current ODSP housing allotment) and the market rent is $979.00, CMHA will top up to the market rent ($500.00/month supplement). Additional housing supports can include: assistance with hydro, provision of last month rent to the landlord to secure the unit for client, vacancy loss if the client moves early, as well assist with finances for damages if they occur. CMHA also provides a one-call support line for landlords so if there is an issue the landlord can call the Housing Coordinator who will dispatch appropriate response as needed. CMHA, both internally and with its community partners, provide case management supports to clients in the rent supplemented units. The rent supplement remains in place even if the client no longer requires the case management support as it is the belief of CMHA that people should not be robbed financially for doing well emotionally.

Housing is a right and not a privilege. An internal review showed the CMHA’s housing program has a lower turnover and eviction rate than the so-call “normal’ population.  CMHA’s housing program firmly believes in the Housing First Model and CMHA has become firmly entrenched in its ideology for more than 16  years.   It’s proven success illustrates that one cannot learn to vacuum in a vacuum and that with housing choice and supports, individuals can live successful lives in their own unit in the community of their choice.