A Shelter from the Storm
It’s noon on a Tuesday and the Stabilization Unit is quiet. The dimly lit room is situated with beds on the right, and a long desk for employees near the double doors at the front. A half wall divides the beds from the lounge to the left. Two men are sleeping in beds farthest away from the doors and another is eating at a table in the lounge, watching Netflix on a TV in the corner. Staff members speak in slightly hushed voices and the dim lighting gives a sleepy, relaxed atmosphere to the shadowy green room.
This is where people who are intoxicated can come to sleep, eat and sober up. The rules are strict: no drugs or alcohol allowed on the premises, meals are served only during specific times, and clients must keep their personal belongings in a bin and collect them when they leave, even if it’s just for a smoke break.
The phone rings and Whitney Rines answers; It’s the Front Desk with another intoxicated client. Rines explains that afternoons are usually slow in the unit because most clients are out and about during the day. The busy hours are from 4pm to midnight, and the beds fill up quickly.
Staff members work hard to make this a safe environment. “You have to understand that people are drinking or using,” says Rines, “you know things that they say they don’t mean, or things that they do they don’t mean. So I think it’s quite a tolerant environment, but violence is not accepted at all.” Clients are supervised at all times and are escorted in and out of the building by a staff member.
Rines has been working at The Lighthouse for the past four years and has been with the Stabilization Unit from its inception two and a half years ago. Since opening in February, 2013, the unit has drastically reduced the number of people held in police custody for intoxication, and helped take the pressure off of emergency rooms.
Last month, the Stabilization Unit housed 724 people and used 930 beds, which averages out to 24 people every day. The bed usage is higher because many clients come to the unit twice a day. The staff estimates they have 80 to 100 regular clients they see on a weekly basis, most of them men of First Nations descent. “A lot of them do stay nightly, a lot of them come twice a day or more and eat every meal here,” says Rines.
Tommy LaPlante sits at the table in the lounge and chats quietly with two men who are eating lunch and watching a movie on Netflix. They seem at ease with him and it becomes clear that he’s there to help them get sober. “Have you ever been to a meeting?” he asks one man casually.
LaPlante is the Case Manager in the Stabilization Unit and it’s his job to help connect clients with services like addictions counselling or applying for housing. “We’re not just a warehouse for people. We are a place where people can come in and change and access supports. And a lot of people don’t realize that there are supports out there,” says LaPlante, who has held this position for the past two months.
On a daily basis, LaPlante will sit down with five to seven people and discuss their addictions. He says that, “a lot of times people are at this pre-contemplation stage where they’re not even thinking about their problem, so if I can be there and just listen and talk and wait for those moments of clarity where they’re tired of being tired and they’re tired of not having a home, then I can really start to help them.”
At the desk, Michelle Belanger is keeping busy organizing files. A big part of her job is also cleaning the showers and washrooms, changing bedding and doing laundry. When new clients come into the Stabilization Unit, Belanger will sit with them and fill out a long intake form, asking questions about alcohol consumption, drug use and other health concerns. She gives the client a pair of sweat pants and t-shirt to wear and washes their clothing while they sleep.
Belanger says she had to grow a thick skin when she first started at The Lighthouse, “I quickly realized not to take anything too personally here. There were times when I’d start crying, but I learned to let it all roll off my back. They don’t mean what they say when they’re intoxicated.” Belanger now has an easy rapport with the clients, who form strong relationships with staff.
As one client gets ready to leave, he jovially bids Belanger and Rines goodbye, “Thank you for lunch ladies, make sure these boys behave. If not you can always duct tape them to the chairs,” he picks up some green tape from the desk. “That’s painter’s tape,” laughs Rines.
Clients are offered meals at specific times and are served cereal or toast for breakfast and sandwiches for supper. The hot lunch today is a burrito with chicken noodle soup and a juice box. There is a toaster, microwave, electric tea kettle and water cooler behind the desk, and clients are offered toast after three hours to help settle their stomach.
As the afternoon wears on, two more men come in to the unit. They lay on beds side by side, and one falls asleep right away. The other is quite visibly intoxicated, and can’t get comfortable. He sits up on the edge of his bed, holds his head in his hands and swears loudly. “He’s grumpy today,” observes Rines.
Finally he decides to get up and go outside for a smoke. Rines immediately gets his backpack for him to take but he refuses, saying, “I’m not taking my backpack outside just to have a smoke. Are you stupid?” As he gets more agitated, Rines continues to calmly explain that it’s the rule. They don’t want clients to forget their belongings and have to throw it out. She ends up carrying the backpack herself as she escorts him outside.
When she gets back she explains, “He couldn’t tell it was me! He said he couldn’t see me in the dim light and didn’t realize it was me. When we got outside he broke down and started crying. He’s just having a bad day.”
The compassion and support of the staff is evident. Their understanding comes from a personal place as some staff members have struggled with addictions and homelessness themselves.
Rines is a nursing student who goes to school full time while working two part time jobs. She worked in Complex Needs, Client Programming and Mobile Outreach before coming to the Stabilization Unit. Rines explains that she feels comfortable here because she grew up in a similar environment. She has two years of school left before she completes her degree, then hopes to find work as a nurse.
Belanger is a single mother of two who has been working at The Lighthouse for eight months. The best part of her job is seeing clients decide to go into treatment to get the help they need. She recently received a thank you note from one person who left for rehab, but Belanger says, “I don’t need any gifts or thank yous, seeing them get better is the only gift I need.” She hopes to make a career in this field and has recently applied to go back to school to become an Addictions Counsellor at SIIT.
LaPlante recently finished the same program and received his Diploma in Addictions Counselling last month. Six years ago he was living at the Salvation Army, struggling with his own addictions. Now he helps some of the people he used to live with. “Years ago when my life was a wreck, I used to drink down by the river with some of these guys. I was in and out of jail and I met a lot of these guys there and a lot of people still remember me from that,” recalls LaPlante, “A lot of them are very happy for me. Especially once I graduated, I got big sweaty hugs from them because they were proud of me.”
He now uses his experience with homelessness to motivate his clients, “I’ve heard it many times now, ‘Well if you did it, I can do it,’ and that’s just it. And I tell them, ‘Yes!’ I get to tell them now that five years ago I went into treatment. I went to a year-long treatment center and I made all these steps to improve myself.”
Renovations are underway to improve the Stabilization Unit. The plan is to expand the current unit from 20 to 37 beds. The new space on the ground floor of the Wellness and Education Centre will have an entrance at the back of the building, separate from the Front Desk. This will allow clients to discreetly come and go as necessary, without a staff escort. There will also be an intake room where LaPlante can chat with clients privately.
“I tell them they can do it now. I say, ‘What if I told you in five years you can be working at the job that you want to work at, have an education and be at the same place in life that I am?” says Laplante, “It’s a powerful tool, a lot of them do like that.” The new Stabilization Unit is set to open this fall.