onf logoFrom the NFB, Here At Home is an interactive documentary offering a look inside At Home, a radical experiment to end chronic homelessness. Led by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the experiment is the largest of its kind in the world. The theory it’s testing: there’s a way to end homelessness for people with mental illness and it starts with giving them homes.

When the NFB asked filmmaker Lynne Stopkewich to document the Vancouver branch of the At Home/Chez Soi study, she went about it systematically. "I spent months observing the different arms of the project and getting to know staff, and then through staff getting to know the people involved. Eventually, I gave a presentation saying that I was interested in hearing people’s stories. A man put up his hand and said, ‘My name’s MadDogg and I have some stories for you.’ I got to know him over the course of a few months and got to see him in action in the kitchen."

Mr. MadDogg may be a cook in a hotel, but the Bosman Hotel Community, where he lives and works, is somewhat different from your standard downtown accommodation. The hundred residents are all formerly homeless people with mental health and addiction issues. There’s also an in-house team of caseworkers, psychiatrists, nurses and doctors. All are part of the At Home study, a vast four-year project involving more than 2,000 participants in five cities across Canada.

The study is test-driving an innovative housing strategy that emphasizes "scatter-site" housing, i.e., the practice of housing people in mainstream apartments in the mainstream population. In a nutshell, the basic idea behind this is that it’s better to wake up in a building full of people getting their kids ready for school (for example) than to wake up in a drug den (for example). Social inclusion is considered a key to recovery.

In this sense, the Bosman Hotel Community is an anomaly. While the vast majority of At Home participants live in scatter-site housing, the residents of the Bosman live together. Why? Because, as Bosman’s project manager Jeff West says, "The homeless population is not homogenous."

Some individuals thrive in scatter-site housing, but others, West believes, do not. For these latter, the stability and support offered by a community is therapeutic. They can lean on each other, and if residents are in crisis, they have ready access to the in-house clinic without an appointment.

Another perk: once a week they get to sample Mr. MadDogg’s homemade brunch.