Finding shelter at St. Clare Inn

By 
  • December 4, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - What are the chances an illiterate, alcoholic, drug addicted, bipolar, paranoid schizophrenic woman is going to pull it together, learn to read, hold down a job, stay on her medications and begin a mini-career as a stand-up comedian?

Linda Chamberlain is that woman, and at 60 she looks back at her 25 years of fear, despair and homelessness with disbelief. She also knows precisely what saved her life.

“It was 15 years ago that I got housing,” Chamberlain said. “And then I was able to deal with my mental health issues. And then I was able to deal with my addiction issues.”

Chamberlain’s basic insight — that having a home was the necessary precondition for recovery — gets full endorsement from the Franciscans and their collaborators at St. Clare Inn , a three-year-old experiment in helping mentally ill and addicted women who would otherwise be homeless.

The impetus for St. Clare Inn was a homeless schizophrenic woman who died one night in 1998 in the bathroom of a gas station in the well-to-do Don Mills neighbourhood of St. Bonaventure’s parish. Parishioners who knew about the lady who lived in the parkette were shocked. Just days before, Mayor Mel Lastman had declared there were no homeless people in North York.

Some of the parishioners, with the help of the Conventual Franciscan Friars, began the long process of figuring out what they could do for the hardest cases in Toronto’s homeless population — mentally ill and addicted women.

Chamberlain knows it’s not easy to reach somebody with her combination of diagnoses. But it’s not hopeless and housing is the obvious place to start, she said.

“If you’ve got a stable place to live and you’ve got the right supports, then you can start to heal,” she said. “Recovery doesn’t mean you’re cured. It just means you can live, with the right things in place, a good life.”

City of Toronto staff and the St. Michael’s Hospital Centre for Research on Inner City Health estimate three quarters of homeless single women have some form of mental illness, more than twice the rate for homeless men. About three quarters of regular users of the shelter system are abusing drugs. And a quarter of all homeless are both addicted and mentally ill.

Anecdotal evidence seems to point to a growing population of women living on the street at enormous risk. The Toronto Homeless Memorial in 1988-89 counted 17 homeless people who died that winter, one of whom was a woman. With a month to go in 2009, the memorial counts 14 dead so far this year, five of whom are female.

A 2001 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found women made up between 10 and 25 per cent of the homeless population in various Canadian cities. In 2007 Street Health nurses found that almost one quarter of homeless women had been sexually assaulted or raped in the past year.

The St. Clare Inn exists because Christians can’t accept any of this as inevitable or the status quo, said the Inn’s executive director Friar Thomas Purcell.

“These are our sisters in need,” Purcell said. “We aren’t seeing this as auxiliary or just doing my bit for the poor.”

So far about half of the women who have been through St. Clare Inn continue to live independently and make progress in dealing with their disease.

“We have our success stories and we have our less-than-success stories,” said Purcell. But 50 per cent is more or less phenomenal success in helping mentally ill and addicted women with no social supports.

St. Clare Inn doesn’t provide therapy or medical supervision for its eight residents. What it tries to provide is a normal home and a sense of community. The women can stay up to a year, but there’s no strict time limit. The women are encouraged to set realistic goals, envisioning how they’re going to live beyond their time at the Inn.

Nobody is looking for a cure. But there is an immediate miracle available to the women at the Inn — the revelation of what it feels like to live with dignity and be treated with respect.

“They are not the sum of their background and they’re not their mental health,” said Purcell. “They’re human beings and they’re blessed by God.”

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