10/22/2012 07:35 EDT | Updated 10/23/2012 03:22 EDT

Here At Home: Heart Of Hell (VIDEO)

onf logo From 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.

We asked filmmaker Lynne Stopkewich to document stories from the Vancouver branch of the At Home experiment. In “Heart of Hell,” she focuses her lens on Leanne, a participant who has found housing with the help of her At Home service provider. After years of living on the edge, she's finally putting her life back together.

"Heart of Hell" is just one chapter in the story unfolding in this new kind of documentary. Visiting the Here At Home site means stepping into a cutting-edge web experience where you can explore the experiment through text, data visualizations and films. These films aren’t documenting the past; they’re dispatches from the project in action. The At Home experiment is happening right now, and the NFB is a witness on the ground, bringing you the stories of service providers, researchers, landlords and above all, participants like Leanne.

When we meet Leanne, she’s moving out of a single-room-occupancy (SRO) apartment in the Downtown Eastside to a more residential area of the city. One of the signature aspects of the experiment’s housing model, is that participants need to be able to choose where they want to live. And if one place doesn’t work out, they need to be able to move to another.

Housing is therapeutic for people with mental illness, but all homes are not created equal. Greg Richmond, project leader of At Home’s Vancouver Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, is convinced that what’s required is decent housing. “It’s far better for your mental health to wake up in a building full of people taking their kids to daycare and going to work than it is to wake up in a drug den.”

Leanne’s story clearly illustrates this point. It also illustrates a basic principle articulated by Sam Tsemberis, the founder of the housing model used by At Home: “You don’t have to create incentives for people [to leave homelessness behind]; you just have to create the conditions that make it possible.”

The NFB decided to document this ground-breaking experiment because of its enormous social implications. Here are the basics:

1. The experiment: Sometimes it’s referred to as a study, sometimes a “national research demonstration project,” sometimes a, “randomized controlled trial.” At the NFB, we just like to call it, “the experiment.”

2. The problem: Homelessness is expensive to ignore. Homeless people with mental illness spend a lot of time in hospitals, shelters, jails, courts… services paid for by various branches of government. In fact, it’s estimated that this particular population costs Canadian taxpayers around $1.4 billion. Just to be clear, that’s $1.4 billion for people to continue living on the street!

3. The big idea: find the best way to end homelessness for people with mental illness.

4. The method: At Home is experimenting with something called Housing First. The idea is, before you do anything else for homeless people with mental illness, get them housed. Then offer support services like psychiatric care, addiction counseling, job placement, etc. Housing First advocates claim the model is cost effective, that it’s actually cheaper to house people and provide them with support services than it is to leave them on the street.

5. What it’s not: old-school methods of helping this population typically use housing as a carrot – i.e. if you stop drinking, get off drugs and start taking meds for your mental illness, you get a home.

6. The scale: At Home is HUGE. There are more than 2,000 participants. It’s the largest experiment of its kind in the world.

7. The breakdown: 1,265 of the participants have been housed by At Home; 970 have not. The experiment is comparing the two groups to see who does better and who costs the system less.

8. The map: It’s happening in 5 cities across Canada: Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton.

9. The masterminds: The Mental Health Commission of Canada is running it. Ottawa gave them $110 million to do the experiment.

10. The timeframe: At Home enrolled its first participant in 2009; it ends in March of 2013.

11: The outcome: Unknown. Will the housed participants stay in their homes? Will the experiment kick start a nationwide housing program? It all depends on the results…