Julian Somers

Julian Somers in front of a typical downtown hotel that could become a home to the homeless.

Psychologist has personal stake in Vancouver homeless project

November 19, 2009

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By Barry Shell

Few people know more than Julian Somers about the socio-psychological aspects of Vancouver’s homeless problem, but the issue is also deeply personal for the SFU health sciences associate professor.

Somers, who formerly directed the university’s Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, is now the Vancouver principal investigator for the Canadian Multi-site Research Demonstration Project in Mental Health and Homelessness.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada and Health Canada are co-sponsoring the $110-million five-city research initiative that is tasked with finding ways to help the growing number of homeless Canadians who have a mental illness.

But the Vancouver psychologist’s most visceral connection to homelessness is literally in his blood: Somers’ father was an alcoholic who lived his final tragic years in a Downtown Eastside hotel with no support before dying from alcohol-related disease.

"My dad’s story is the same as many others," he says. "He was a self-educated Irishman involved in local theatre. He was literate, had a house in Point Grey. And it wasn’t just one single thing but a series of events and missed opportunities that put him on a trajectory terminating in precarious housing, untreated illness and premature death."

The homelessness research initiative—the first randomized trial of housing interventions undertaken in Canada—is employing a "housing first" approach to immediately provide permanent housing for the homeless and then the services to support them once they are stabilized. The current system provides emergency shelter and transitional housing first.

About 80 per cent of the Vancouver site’s $23.5-million budget is earmarked for housing and services for the homeless with the remainder devoted to data collection and research. Some 300 of the city’s 500 homeless participants will receive rental support for 2 ½ years plus ongoing individualized health support.

"Homeless people with mental disorders are grossly disenfranchised," says Somers. "As a society we need to build a social scaffolding to reclaim these lost people. A scaffolding of new social ideas, a framework of thought, so people can be guided in their social behaviour and actions. That’s the ultimate goal of the study."


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Very inspirational effort!!

j. Turcotte

I can not agree with you more. My own father was a brilliant man who had careers as an inspector in aircraft manufacturing in Montreal during the 2nd world war, and as a journalist in the late 40's and 50's. Alcohol and mental disease led him to an early death in a rooming house in Newestminster in 1970. He was a victim of the LSD research conducted in Montreal in the 50's.

I volunteer at the Dugout on Powell Street in the Downtown Eastside. I am watching the client base change daily,. What used to be a largely alcoholic based community has now become an almost completely drug addicted group. Those who fall through the cracks are the mentally ill. Most of those are suffering from schizophrenia and bi-polar disease

What most people fail to realize is that the mentally ill who usually refuse to go into shelters due to psychoses concerning "brain picking" and voices telling them to do "things", typical schizophrenic complaints.

It is a very difficult concept for those who have never dealt with the mentally ill to begin to understand. Most people and many of the social service workers involved on the front lines are so over worked and tired that they tend to just let things slide. I see the results every day. I am often very frustrated myself. One of the clients is a woman that I attended both Langara College and SFU with. Some days she thinks of me as her friend, and often she sees me as her enemy. I knew her when she was on her meds and am very aware of what she is capable of. This is not the woman I see most of the time now. I an only imagine how those who are constantly trying to house her feel.

I can only say that education of the general public is paramount to trying to close the cracks and govern social behoviour towards the mentally ill. Koodo's to you for taking on this enormous task

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