By Rita Button
One hundred pairs of socks—that’s the number Our Place gives to people every day. Socks are easy to count. Feet are not only easier to heal but also easier to count than are the broken spirits and hearts whose feet wear the socks.
I guess you can’t fix everything.
But My Place gives it a pretty good try. Everyone who crosses that threshold is welcomed and offered help in whatever form seems appropriate: grief counselors, computer courses, spiritual healers, general counselors, crafts, health issues and, of course, food—to name a few.
Victoria City Councilor Laurel Collins believes that our city should use Victoria’s population demographics to create housing for those who need it and ensure access is easily obtained. Grant McKenzie, director of communications for Our Place, believes that services and opportunities must match the requirements of those who need them. To that end, Our Place offers many different pathways for the disenfranchised to find ways to become responsible for and enjoy their own lives.
Seniors, for example, who have to choose between paying rent and buying food, will choose to pay the rent, and to eat at My Place where sharing a meal becomes a social event and chases away the isolation for awhile. Knitting circles, tai chi, and computer classes given by Camosun College instructors who volunteer their time, create reasons and spaces for people to gather where they can make new friends, and alleviate their solitary silence for a few hours.
The computer classes in which people can begin at a place where they’re comfortable have an added bonus: when a person attends three consecutive weeks of classes, he/she has earned a bus pass and is then eligible for other Camosun programs. People who take advantage of this opportunity soon find themselves connecting with people who have similar interests, an event that often results in new friends.
Linked to learning opportunities are the books selected by Victoria Public library volunteers. People who hang out at My Place, aka family members, can borrow a book from the shelves near the computer room. If your bicycle or scooter needs fixing, volunteers are available on certain days to help you with that problem. The total appreciation for the people who have volunteered their time during the repair sessions creates an atmosphere of excitement at Our Place.
And there’s art. Grant notices people whose artistic talents surface. If he can, he’ll commission that person to create some art for the Place such as the First Nations fish that have been painted on the wall just above the stairwell. Downstairs, on the coffee room walls hang portraits of family who have been a part of Our Place. Painted by others who have been a part of the family, they illuminate the respect for and humanity of the subjects who are family as well. It’s a wall that dramatizes the human connections of us all.
To deal with the number of medical issues among family members, Our Place staff transformed a closet into a medical room. Street nurses, volunteer doctors, and the police work with Our Place people while members of St John’s Ambulance deal with wounds in an emergency. No matter how difficult the crisis, caregivers connect with those in need. Connecting is one way, Grant maintains, to help the family members understand that many people want to see them succeed.
One of Councillor Laurel Collins’ wishes is for the City to create peer-informed alternative response models similar to the one known as Cahoots in Eugene, Oregon. There mental health and addiction challenges are addressed through harm reduction and where such issues along with other non-emergency calls are directed to a team trained to assist in crisis situations. Such an approach not only frees the police to attend to law enforcement calls, but also ensures that the people most skilled in addressing mental health and addictions respond to those facing health crises.
The current Our Place is the flagship that explores the ways in which people can help others overcome bad choices, bad luck, and other life challenges. Overall, the purpose at Our Place is to encourage sobriety and then find the best employment and housing fit for the individual.
Four other locations under the Our Place covenant help people to become sober so that the best housing fit can be found for them. Around the corner from Our Place is Next Steps to Employment, a place for people who are well enough to organize their own lives. They might be able to get a paying job or a volunteer job. Across the street is First Metropolitan United Church where sixty mats are available for overnight shelter. The former Boys and Girls Club across from Central Middle School is a transitional space: forty-eight cots with defined spaces that allow storage of personal belongings for the person who stays there.
The former Youth Correctional Centre in View Royal houses a Therapeutic Recovery Community. Split into three phases over two years of sober living, the orientation phase can be the most difficult part of the program, because it involves motivating participants to be consistent in their approaches to becoming responsible, respected people. It’s a peer-led program which allows family members to observe that success from a peer who has similar issues but who has learned to use some of the strategies to handle them. This kind of mentorship encourages those struggling to hang in there since they see the fight someone else has fought, rather than from someone who seems as if he/she has never had to struggle. Laurel Collins, who values using peer informed practices, supports this kind of an approach.
After participants graduate, they leave with a place to live, a job, positive reconnection with family, and most importantly, the skills needed to maintain all three. For those who are not ready to enter treatment, the top three floors of Our Place are transitional housing where people can explore living in a social building with staff supports while occupying a private room. The top floor is the sober floor. The two beneath are places where the hardest to house can begin to see the rewards of a life lived with purpose in a safe place.
Grant’s dream is to establish Our Place 2, a place that would focus on social enterprise, increased sober housing, where not only couples but also single women would have private spaces. The main floor would be commercial—maybe a commercial laundry, a coffee shop or some service business and/or apprenticeship that, in a safe, supervised environment, would teach people required skills. The need for handouts would disappear in such a hands-on, hands-up environment where participants might wash the socks instead of collecting them, thus creating a feeling of confidence and well-being. They would learn that their own words must be as true as those they expect from others while they become the person who is respected and trusted—just like those who have shown them respect and trust.
Councillor Laurel Collins’ idea of tailor making the house to fit the person, and ensuring a clearly accessible process to a home, is what Grant is attempting to achieve. He wants to help lift people out of the morass of substance abuse, mistrust, disconnection, or mental health difficulties, which all too often have resulted in confusion and feelings of helplessness. Informed peer helpers are a part of Our Place. Grant and Laurel seem in agreement. One is trying to change the culture while the other is trying to help those who have been unable to survive independently in the current culture of Victoria.
Trust, respect, understanding, and places to call our own build community. Although it’s a hard slog for some, it’s not impossible when people work together.