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A home is where the hope is

A growing chorus of supporters say subsidized housing curbs homelessness by stabilizing the lives of those trying to survive out on the streets, MARK HUME writes

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — There are 82 tenants in the social-housing facility Dennis Krausher runs, and he knows that among them are drug addicts, prostitutes and people with multiple mental problems.

As far as he's concerned, they are all good clients who are welcome to stay. But then, in his world, cutting people slack comes with the territory.

"I don't sit here in judgment on them," said Mr. Krausher, a landlord who is so close to the front lines of the homelessness crisis in Vancouver that some of his tenants have literally moved in off the street.

"I don't have a three strikes and you're out rule. I have a preservation of tenancy -- if at all possible -- rule," he said.

"There are certain things they can't do, of course. If they commit a violent act or don't pay their rent, they have to go. Almost everything else we can work out," said Mr. Krausher, who is in regular contact with 23 social support groups that help his tenants on a daily basis.

When people look at the scope of the homelessness crisis in Vancouver -- which is mirrored in other cities across Canada -- they invariably ask: Is there a solution?

Increasingly, social planners are saying, yes there is -- and it's in the kind of supportive, social housing that Mr. Krausher runs. Complexes like his (which isn't being named to protect the privacy of the tenants) are at the heart of a strategy that is rapidly gaining momentum in North America and which is known simply as "housing first." Few people know better than Mr. Krausher how secure, safe housing can change people's lives. It doesn't perform miracles -- but it sure helps.

Some of his tenants are on welfare. Some are on disability pensions. Some turn tricks or collect recyclable bottles and cans to augment their meagre income. There are so many binners in the building (people who dive in dumpsters to salvage saleable items) that the management committee is considering regulations to control when they are allowed to rattle through the courtyard.

But Mr. Krausher says having a home to live in has given them all a stable base from which to slowly rebuild their lives.

He measures success in ways most of us might not.

"We've had people come in here with hep[atitis] C. They've beat it. They've stayed on their meds and got better," he said, citing what he sees as a major triumph.

"Not everyone improves. But I've seen lives not getting any worse, and that's saying something."

And every once in a while a tenant surprises him.

This week, he had a call from a young man who was giving his notice. He came to the facility from a homeless shelter -- and phoned from Calgary to say he had a job.

"He said, 'Thanks for giving me a place so I could get out of that shelter. I was able to get my head together. I'm not coming back.' "

Another tenant who had been on welfare for eight years told Mr. Krausher social assistance was a crutch and he was quitting it to force himself to find work. It was, under the circumstances, a daring leap of faith that illustrated a growing self-confidence.

"He's doing landscaping. He's doing great now," Mr. Krausher said.

One woman who recently moved in had lived on the street for seven years. Many didn't think she would stick, but six months later she is still there -- slowly normalizing her life. Among her challenges is simply learning how to be a good neighbour. There are few reference points for that when you are sleeping in back alleys.

The focus in Mr. Krausher's facility (rents go from a low of $125 a month to a high of 30 per cent of an individual's income, and are subsidized by B.C. Housing) is on keeping people in their homes so they can stabilize their lives.

"Safe, secure housing is the base of the triangle," Mr. Krausher said. "The purpose of social housing is to get people in, to give them a foundation, so they can get to the next level. We're a stepping stone."

Rolf Auer, 52, is an example of how a life can change by the simple act of getting a decent place to live. He resides in a subsidized apartment not in Mr. Krausher's complex, where he's built his own support network.

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