12/02/2012 12:47 EST | Updated 12/03/2012 06:03 EST

Here At Home: From Downtown Eastside To Downtown Winnipeg (VIDEO)

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.

Among the people Winnipeg filmmaker Darryl Nepinak met while researching the At Home project was Lukas, a social worker relocated from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Nepinak assumed that Winnipeg’s problems couldn’t compare to the notorious Hastings neighbourhood where Lukas had worked for 15 years. He was wrong. “Things are just as bad here,” said the social worker.

In fact, things are bad for homeless people with mental illness all over Canada. Stepping into the "Here At Home" documentary website, the viewer quickly becomes aware that the issues involved span the country. The At Home study is taking place in five trial cities: Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton.

On the Here At Home site you can explore films from each of these cities, or you can zero in on one city in particular. You can also find some hard statistics: Winnipeggers who are aboriginal: eight per cent; homeless Winnipeggers who are aboriginal: 70 per cent) and some telling ones (a night in hospital: $979; a night in jail: $162; a night At Home: $51). And you can read about the particular challenges faced by those living on the street with mental illness.

In the case of Winnipeg, adult solvent use is the major problem, and behind that problem looms the dark history of residential schools, colonialism and racism. The issues, in other words, are deep-rooted. That’s why, for the participants in the At Home study, housing is only the beginning of their recovery from chronic homelessness.

Once they’re securely housed, service providers like Lukas can begin to help them face their other challenges. Lukas belongs to an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, a group of service providers crucial to the success of the At Home housing experiment. There are ACT teams in each of the five At Home trial cities.

In Vancouver, the team’s project leader is Greg Richmond. “We work with more than 80 participants,” he explains.

“Every morning we meet to go through the database and review each of their cases. We sort out what needs to be done and then scatter across the city to visit our clients. This project requires an incredibly high level of organization – I’ve never seen anything like it before.

“The bulk of the work we do is outreach, which can mean doing everything from linking up somebody’s cable to integrating them into their new community. Mostly it involves listening well and building dignifying relationships with participants. It’s very hard work helping people that the system hasn’t helped before. It requires persistence and a fundamentally positive outlook. It requires an understanding of the background to the problems the participants have experienced. Team members need to have a strong sense of social justice and be fundamentally non-judgmental. And they need to profoundly ‘get’ adversity.

"Most importantly, they need to be able to see that people who have lived through a great deal of adversity have a great deal of strength. We need to be able to get alongside them and help them use those strengths to achieve what they want to achieve. This is not about clinicians imposing a solution on people, it’s about helping people realize their own goals.”