On her 200th day of sobriety, Michelle Boissonneault, a resident at The Salvation Army’s London Centre of Hope, Ont., is, as the centre’s name suggests, hopeful. “I’ve been into detox here 25 maybe 30 times, so this is a spot that I’ve always known is a safe haven,” she says. “When they call it the Centre of Hope it is because they give hope.”
When Boissonneault moved into her private room at the Centre of Hope, she had just experienced one of the most brutally cold winters after spending more than a year and a half homeless on the streets of London. Her drug use was out of control to the point where she had caught a flesh-eating bacterial infection and her teeth were decaying. “I was giving up; I was an empty shell of what I used to be,” she says. “I was weeks away from being dead.”
The unique transitional housing program at the centre began when the City of London announced that they were going to depopulate shelter beds. That’s when the Recovery Community Centre at the Centre of Hope was formed, with a mission to bridge the gap between addiction and recovery. Typically, people experiencing homelessness and drug addiction go through a detox treatment, head to a temporary shelter and then end up back on the streets where the cycle continues. The withdrawal management program at the centre sees 1,200 clients each year and for some of those, they will take a walk down the hall to embark on a journey of stability and personal growth.
The Recovery Community Centre offers long-term affordable housing where residents can rent a room for up to four years. The fee is anywhere between $500-$800 based on a clients income source. They are given their own personal room, which comes fully equipped with a bed, desk and bathroom, including a shower. Beyond the four walls that many will call home, the fee also includes access to all the centre’s programs, including meal plans and financial supports. Residents in the affordable housing program reported having overall improved health, a sense of dignity and higher self-esteem, according to research conducted by Abe Oudshoorn, a nursing professor at Western University in London, Ont. The study also showed that whereas people’s health and social outcomes continue to decline when they stay at a temporary shelter, having the stability of a private room decreases anxiety in clients by eliminating the chance that they might be robbed or exposed to drugs.
The program is unique in Canada and took inspiration from similar programs in Detroit, Michigan and Philadelphia.
The Pandemic Plan
When the program launched in December 2019, no one could have guessed it was opening on the cusp of a global pandemic. To make matters worse, a fire broke out on one of the floors in the centre, which temporarily displaced 20 residents. “The positive thing is that this was a catalyst to change,” says Jon DeActis, executive director.
The City of London intervened to purchase hotel rooms for those displaced by the fire and the Centre of Hope identified the most vulnerable clients based on factors of health and age to stay there. At the time, no one knew that these flames would fuel the fire of necessary change for the looming COVID-19 crisis, where the hotel rooms would be needed for extra space for the shelter to enforce physical distancing measures.
Other precautions the centre immediately adopted included opening the dining hall three times a day instead of the usual two to ensure people had the room to stay a safe distance apart. Stocking up three months of personal protective equipment was another measure put in place from the very beginning of the crisis. Physical distancing was practised in the hallways and the chapel was turned into an isolation room in case someone contracted the virus.
The Centre of Hope’s pandemic plan was so successful that other shelters in the city started adopting it. “During this pandemic we’ve not had one resident or staff member in the shelter system end up testing positive for COVID-19,” says DeActis.
As the City of London is in talks to depopulate city shelters after COVID-19, directors such as DeActis are faced with the new challenge of figuring out how to deal with the demand of finding housing for an influx of clients.
Home for All
The Centre of Hope isn’t only a home for those struggling with drug addiction. While many do struggle with addiction, others have suffered misfortunes such as a job loss or mental-health challenges. “As the old saying goes, ‘You are just one paycheque away from being homeless,’ ” notes DeActis. Students who can’t afford a place to live while in school are also served at the shelter.
Whether residents are employed or searching for a job, the goal is to encourage people to create a life of stability. The housing stability bank program helps residents with the first and last month of rent when they move out into a permanent home. Some of the funds are offered as grant money and some as loans that clients have three years to pay back. The amount they must pay back is minimal. “If they can’t pay it back, we just forgive it,” says DeActis.
Staff at the Centre of Hope also help clients with the application process for government financial aid and get them to a place of independence where they can search for housing on their own. Clients who need extra help are also referred to Housing First, an external program to assist them with permanent housing.
The Centre of Hope has a variety of programs that extend beyond addiction and recovery. There is the community and family program that serves the London community with operations such as a food bank and a Christmas hamper program. Last Christmas, the centre served 4,500 food hampers, gave away 6,500 bags of toys for children and produced more than 700 meals a day for those experiencing food insecurity.
During COVID-19, the centre adapted by assembling a special team to operate an emergency vehicle in the parking lot. With the City of London helping fund meals five days a week during the pandemic, additional support was much needed. “We went to the Christian Church Network of London and put out a request for volunteers,” says DeActis. The response was overwhelming. “We needed 60 to make the program run and we ended up with 140 volunteers,” he says.
A Place of Hope
For Boissonneault, who was the second resident of one of the rooms at the Recovery Community Centre at the shelter, the sense of community and support is what makes the Centre of Hope more like a home than just a recovery program. “Having the support of the staff—some of whom have been through what I’ve been through—and being able to have a community meal with everyone is kind of like having a family,” she says.
Since first arriving at the shelter, she has been able to have her teeth replaced with dentures and her flesh eating infection has healed. “I’m taking the direct steps to where I need to go in life and to feel OK with who I am as a person,” she says.
While Boissonneault has plans to return to school to become a security guard, she is focusing on staying on track in the present. “Right now, I’m not looking too far ahead because I’ve spent so long in the epitome of hell. I’m just trying to take this one day at a time,” she says. For the time being, she’s thankful to have a place that she can call home. “Having my own space, my own bed and somewhere I can call my own is an incredible feeling,” she says.
“At the beginning, I was absolutely hopeless. I didn’t know where I was going to go—but this place has brought life back to me.”