“Mayor Iveson, Edmonton City Council,” I said and nodded to the assembled group, “My name is Leif Gregersen, I am diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I currently live in a group home for mentally ill adults.”
Though I went on, that was all I needed to say. At the time, in 2015, a proposal had come before city council that would require group home operators to notify neighbours if a new group home had been approved. It would have given neighbours the chance to appeal the approval. It was blatant discrimination and didn’t pass, but underneath, I felt the sting of embarrassment because there were people out there who actually wanted it to. Even today, that fact makes me feel ashamed to have a mental illness. I later learned that I had schizoaffective disorder, bipolar subtype, not bipolar disorder, a fact that I did not know in 2015.
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Housing is the biggest barrier people with mental illnesses face. In extreme cases, we see people on the street, unkempt and talking to themselves. Many people avoid these hard cases as much as possible, even in frigid weather. Some give a little change, while others give to charities that help address the underlying issues that put people in this situation, which is what I do.
About 30 years ago, at age 20, I was experiencing the effects of severe psychosis, and could no longer stay with my parents. I knew I would soon run out of options, which in the winter in Edmonton can be deadly. I ended up going to a psychiatric hospital and was thankfully admitted. Had my situation been worse, or had I been agitated and dirty, it was far more likely that I would have ended up on the street, in jail, or worse.
More recently, after a six-month stay in the psychiatric hospital, I went to a group home owned by a woman who seemed more interested in having someone pay her mortgage than in helping the mentally ill. My stay ended with her screaming in my face for something I didn’t do. My roommate convinced me it was assault and that the police should be called. The officer who responded took the landlady’s side immediately and threatened to take me back to the hospital.
I put in many applications, but with a six-month gap in my renting history, and no references, no one called back. At the last minute, a social worker found me another group home. I was reluctant, but it ended up being an amazing place to live. There is something very healing about living in a community of others with similar mental illnesses and compassionate staff members.
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I stayed there 10 years, then moved to a house with less supervision. My new landlord did little to settle disputes, and there were many. His policy was to shuffle people around from other houses. There were people there who should have been in much more structured care. It was a travesty. When I finally went to move out, the landlord received a call for a reference, came to my room, livid, and tried to kick me out on the spot. After trying to live alone again, my sister convinced me I was better off in the group home I had lived in for a decad, so I returned. Now, the group home has helped me find supportive housing where my rights are protected, in a subsidized, well-managed apartment where everyone is living with a mental health disability.
In Canada, 47 percent of people with schizophrenia, a close relative to schizoaffective disorder, report discrimination in making or keeping friends, according to a report from Canada’s Public Policy Forum, and 72 percent feel they need to hide their illness. Upwards of 60 to 70 percent never marry, and they also attempt and complete suicide at a much higher rate than the general population.
We need a national strategy to guarantee adequate, regulated housing for those who can’t always advocate for themselves. According to Homeless Hub, more than a third of Canadians who are homeless live with mental illness. Without a nationwide housing strategy, effective, lasting treatment or recovery simply won’t be possible for them. A careful, human-centred plan to house people, regardless of their type of neurodivergence, would likely cost less than just ignoring the problem. It would cost less in dollars, cost fewer human lives and result in less needless suffering.
Leif Gregersen is a writer in Edmonton.
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