As hard as it’s been living a life on the streets, Karen Montgrand can almost imagine doing it again.
Since March, Montgrand has been a resident in Cool Aid Soceity’s Olympic Vista, a supported housing unit with 36 suites dedicated to seniors (55-plus) at risk of homelessness, on Carey Road in Saanich.
She arrived following a hospital stay from which doctors refused to release her back on the street.
“I miss living outside,” said Montgrand, who loves Olympic Vista and its community of residents and staff. “I have to stay away from that. If I move back out, I return to the hard life.”
Photos of family and friends provide a cozy feel to Montgrand’s suite, along with a comfortable couch she hopes to one day upgrade.
Last week, Montgrand was visited by renowned housing first pioneer Dr. Sam Tsemberis, who founded Pathways Housing First in New York City 23 years ago. Tsemberis came to host a public presentation and workshop on his Pathways to Housing approach at Victoria City Hall. He was joined by Krista Loughton, a local videographer who produced and directed the documentary Us and Them, being released this month.
The movie follows Montgrand’s life and the lives of three others on the streets of Victoria from 2006 to 2013.
Montgrand has seen excerpts of the film and she doesn’t like seeing it, she said.
“I watched it and I come away thinking [Montgrand] knows what she’s doing, she knows her stuff,” Tsemberis said. “I understand if Montrgand doesn’t like it, but it shows a lot of strength and knowhow. It’s hard to survive [on the streets], she’s a survivor.”
Us and Them’s importance in breaking down barriers is incomparable at a time when Victoria’s mayor and council are leading the region in seeking additional solutions to the physical and economical costs of homelessness, said Loughton.
The fact that an ongoing tent city has been erected on the grounds of Victoria’s provincial courthouse on Burdett Avenue is merely serendipitous, said Cool Aid Society’s executive director Kathy Stinson.
“It just shows we need more housing,” said Stinson, who’s campaigning for Cool Aid to add another 360 housing units in Greater Victoria. “Cases like [Montrand’s] could be dealt with in a matter of one to two weeks [instead of two to three months, or more].”
“The fact that this movie is coming out at a time that Victoria is seeking a solution for the homeless, and when there’s a tent town on the lawn of the courthouse is a mere coincidence,” Loughton said. “It just shows that it’s about time.”
After spending seven years with Montgrand and the three others, Us and Them ultimately changed the course of Loughton’s life, she said.
It was Loughton, and a team of others, who played a key role in getting Montgrand into Olympic Vista earlier this year.
“This movie took on a life of its own,” Loughton said. “It took Cool Aid coming on as a partner to finish the movie, and now Dr. Tsemberis is here, it’s all aligned.”
As for Montgrand, life on the streets was about solidarity with others. Leaving that group mentality behind has been part of the difficulty as she lives one day at a time in Olympic Vista.
During her recent Victoria years on the street, Montgrand banded up with a group of about five others, she said.
It was about solidarity.
“We’d all panhandle, five in a row, and share what we got, drink all day, we took care of each other,” she said.
Letting go of the instincts that helped her survive decades on the streets remains a challenge that many people face once they are housed, said James Slack, a senior resident support worker at Olympic Vista.
“It’s never over by any stretch of the imagination, we house the hardest to house who aren’t successful in other situations,” Slack said.
That said, there is an 80 per cent success rate for residents transitioning into harm reduction, housing first models such as Olympic Vista, Tsemberis said.
Despite Montgrand saying she can still envision surviving on the streets, the ‘hard life’ is something Montgrand is slowly putting behind her.
At this time, she’s instructed staff to turn away some of her former street mates. Some visit, but only one at a time. Often, it’s the drinking which Montgrand is trying to get away from, something that is technically permitted in Olympic Vista’s harm reduction model.
Sometimes, Montgrand and her crew would acquire a motel room. But then everyone would show up, and the drinking would lead to things getting out of control.
“We’d keep a place maybe one week, that was all. Kicked out.”
Now she has hot coffee, meals are provided, and she is thrilled with the support services from staff.
“I didn’t know about this place,” Montgrand said. “I had help to get here. If I didn’t have help, I would still be out there.”
Us and Them will be screened for the public at The Vic Theatre (808 Douglas Street) on Dec. 9. Admission is $10, doors open at 6:30 p.m for the 7 p.m. screening.
Cool Aid’s Help End Homelessness campaign aims to build or repurpose 360 apartments for 360 people in Greater Victoria.