Pictured above: Dr. Vicky Stergiopoulos and Marek Wroblewski.
By Sean O’Malley
Senior Media Relations Specialist
In a life that had already seen its share of hardship, the winter of 2011 felt like the end of the line for Marek Wroblewski.
A first-generation immigrant from Poland living with Schizophrenia, Marek, then in his early 50’s, found himself homeless, toggling between sleeping in the alleys of downtown Toronto and a homeless shelter.
It was then, at his lowest ebb, that his life changed forever.
First, he re-connected with Dr. Vicky Stergiopoulos, who was working for St. Michael’s Hospital at that time.
Then he was enrolled in a program called Housing First, made possible by a $110-million research project funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The project, involving over 2,000 homeless people in five cities, including Toronto, is the largest of its kind in the world and is already being used as a model to break the cycle of homelessness in The United States and parts of Europe.
The premise of the Housing First model is simple: unlike traditional models that require participants to commit to sobriety and psychiatric treatment before being eligible for housing support services, Housing First provides immediate access to rent supplements and mental health support services.
As a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry showed, Housing First has resulted in a lasting and significant increase in the percentage of days formerly homeless people have stable housing, both over the short term and the long term.
Marek is living proof of the success of the program.
“This program saved my life. Vicky saved my life—she is an angel,” says Marek at the apartment he has been living in on a leafy downtown Toronto street since 2011.
It is the simple things the rest of us take for granted that are so meaningful for Marek now like going grocery shopping and being able to cook for himself while listening to music.
“Having my own place means that someone like me living with Schizophrenia can live a meaningful life with dignity,” says Marek. “I feel truly blessed.”
For Dr. Stergiopoulos, lead author of the Housing First study, trying to alleviate the problem of chronic homelessness among people with mental illness has been an enduring passion throughout her career on the front lines of mental health treatment and research.
“When I did home visits I would see the squalid conditions that people with serious mental illness were living in and I would end my day crying,” she says. “All I want is to see them reclaim their dignity. Would you not want society to have that in mind for a family member or loved one who is seriously sick?”
CAMH has long recognized the link between stable housing and mental health. Our Social Determinants of Health team manages over 40 community partnerships that provide housing to patients and CAMH continues to advocate alongside community partners to create more supportive housing for people with serious mental illness.
An estimated two-thirds of people who are chronically homeless are believed to have serious mental illness. The lack of housing supports for that population is straining the entire health care system. At CAMH, one in five inpatients are well enough to be eligible for supportive housing, but cannot be discharged because there are no available housing options suitable to their needs.
Some of the CAMH partnerships to help address these gaps include the Shared Care Clinical Outreach Program to assist people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and a specialized transitional housing service in partnership with LOFT Community Services for seniors with mental illness.
In 2012, CAMH dedicated land to 179 affordable housing units at our Queen and Ossington site, which has helped re-integrate some patients back into the community.
The hope is that with a greater investment in these kind of resources, there will be many more success stories like Marek’s.