TIMMINS -- Seeing the success of its housing partnership with Northern College, the Cochrane District Social Services Administration Board birthed a program called ‘Housing Now’ as a new approach to tackling homelessness.

Working with the Canadian Mental Health Association Cochrane-Timiskaming branch, the program pairs clients with one-bedroom housing from participating landlords, helps subsidize rent and provides mental health and life skills supports.

Brian Marks, CAO of the social services board, told CTV it’s a switch away from the shelter system to focus on what it hopes is a more sustainable solution.

“Long-term, it’s the continued application of those supports that will determine the success of this program,” Marks said. “Getting somebody housed for a day: great, it was a success. Keeping them housed for six months, 12 months, 18 months, that’s where the work really comes in.”

Making an ‘impactful change’

Marks said getting landlords on board for the program didn’t take much convincing, as long as the social services board could guarantee rent, along with added incentives like damage costs.

Clients stay in the program for as long as necessary, until they can cover rent on their own and no longer need as many supports. So far, Marks said at least 20 clients have been housed.

Paul Jalbert, the mental health association’s local executive director, said the program is still a work in progress and will require adjustments as community partners figure out the most effective ways to address client needs.

But with the pandemic seeming to put the world on hold, he said this is the time to explore different tactics.

Focus on building self-reliance

“It lets us really take a step back and say ‘OK, if we’re going to make meaningful, impactful change, this is an opportunity to do it,’” Jalbert said in a Zoom interview. "Let’s see what we can get out of this, let’s see what we can learn from it.

"It’s a very action-oriented project but in the background, we’re collecting information ... that lets us know if we’re on the right track.”

If the program works, Jalbert said it will be something the association and the services board can take to other communities as an example of how this approach worked in Timmins. If it doesn’t, he said they will keep looking for better options.

But Marks said he’s now convinced that a housing-first approach is the best method to give the homeless population a pathway to break out of that cycle. And when compared to the shelter system, he said it will end up saving the community money since it would reduce the cost for hospitals, paramedics and police.