WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
DiverseCity Housing support worker Ashley Thomson listens as Barbara, once homeless, tells how she loves her new apartment but wishes a volunteer would spend time with her so 'I won't sit there with my loneliness.'
Three years into the implementation of Edmonton's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, about 1,600 people have made the journey from homelessness to home.
However, adjusting to a new life off the streets takes time and is usually a lonely experience. Homeless people have left behind their social network and have yet to build a new one.
Darrell, a former homeless man and drug addict who has spent the past two decades in and out of jail, got a new one-bedroom apartment a year ago.
He is happy with his new quarters but feels lonely and socially isolated. He left his old habits, friends and acquaintances behind and now sits all alone at home. There is no one with whom to chat or share a cup of coffee. His only solid company nowadays is a support worker who visits regularly.
Fortunately, help is on the way. Edmonton's faith communities have joined forces through the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative to help the likes of Darrel be successful in their transition from the streets to a home.
Through the new citywide Welcome Home program, volunteers from the city's various faiths will be partnered with a recently housed person or family to help them adjust to life off the streets.The faith communities announced the Welcome Home program about a year ago.
"Today we are absolutely delighted to be able to announce that the program is ready, up and running," Anne Smith, chair of Edmonton's Homeless Commission, said at a public gathering at City Hall March 22. "We have the people ready to deliver the program."
Smith announced the program would be funded by donations from Enbridge Inc., the Edmonton Homeless Commission and Catholic Social Services, which has the contract to run the program.
"Combating this problem of loneliness is going to take the whole community," she said. "Social isolation and loneliness is the single largest reason that (homeless people) aren't able to be successful in their new home."
Smith said Welcome Home will give the newly housed the support they need to adjust to their new lives away from the streets.
"Most importantly, it will give them that friendship, that warm person to fall on," she continued. "It'll help the newly-housed establish community connections that will allow them to be successful in their homes and to become integrated into their new communities."
Volunteers are expected to connect newly housed persons or families with existing service agencies and offer companionship. "It could be a cup of coffee, a trip to the library, a trip to the sports arena or maybe just go to a grocery store," Smith said.
Catholic Social Services will screen volunteers and provide them with orientation, training and ongoing support. On average, volunteers commit to spending one to two hours a week with their participant over the course of six months with an opportunity to continue for the balance of the year.
Speaking for the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative, Rabbi David Kunin recalled how a year ago 23 faith leaders gathered at the Citadel Theatre and signed a declaration committing themselves to end homelessness in Edmonton and to support the city's initiatives in ending homelessness.
Welcome Home, he said, is the result of that commitment.
"All of us working in the Interfaith Housing Initiative feel this is one of the best ways to help those who are newly-housed successfully integrate into the community," Kunin said.
Barbara, a once homeless woman, has had an apartment for about a year now.
"It's beautiful," she said at the City Hall gathering. "I can cook, I can clean; I don't have to worry where I'm sleeping anymore."
However, Barbara's apartment is located in a new area of the city, far from where she used to be.
"I have no friends there," she said. "It would be nice to have volunteers that would come out and get around and spend time; that way I won't sit there with my loneliness."
Darrell, 50, spent the last 20 years in and out of prison, often committing crimes in order to return to jail and have a place to stay. During his last stint in prison, however, he met a social worker and was able to get a brand new apartment upon his release a year ago.
"They hooked me up with DiverseCity Housing so I've got my own place now," he proudly said at the gathering.
"But when you are dealing with drug addictions and stuff like that, you tend to isolate yourself. I think it would be great to get some support from a volunteer, maybe someone with a vehicle."
Darrell said he didn't want to appear on television for fear of being recognized by his former friends. "I'll have 30 or 40 homeless trying to track me down so they can move in," he said to laughter from the audience. "My place is not big enough for so many people."
Sister Mary Clare Stack, manager of parish relations at Catholic Social Services and the "promotions person" for the Welcome Home team, noted several volunteers are already signed up.
Stack said the first step is to see which newly-housed people are interested in receiving support visitors. Volunteers will then be interviewed and matched with the newly-housed. Volunteers will undergo nine hours of training, including a three-hour weeknight session and a six-hour weekend session.
CSS will also offer once-a-month formation sessions for the volunteers where they will tackle topics such as mental health and addiction issues.
Those interested in volunteering with Welcome Home can contact the program coordinator at 780-378-2544 or email at Jacqueline.Bass@catholicsocialservices.ab.ca.