Recently, I had the opportunity to tour Saskatoon’s Lighthouse Supported Living Centre, in the heart of our downtown on the corner of 20th Street and Second Avenue. You know the one — the place a whole bunch of people wish didn’t exist.
After my tour, walking down the cracked steps and back into the sunlight, two distinct feelings washed over me: Hope and Hopelessness.
Let’s start with Hopelessness because it’s the more logical feeling when exiting a facility filled with our community’s most vulnerable citizens. Addictions, lifetimes of abuse and exploitation, chronic homelessness, mental illness, disease and plain old-fashioned bad luck tend to plague those who call the Lighthouse home. Yes, these are often the same people bothering you for change downtown, drifting up and down Second Avenue.
The Lighthouse, formerly the Capri Hotel, is not a glamorous place. In various stages of renovation and disrepair, projects move slowly, teasing staff and clients alike with their potential as grant funds trickle in at a glacier’s pace. The men and women’s emergency overnight shelters, housed in what appears to be the hotel pool’s locker rooms, are lined with neatly made beds. General manager Jordon Cooper, a man who has devoted his life to the lives of others, shares the story of one woman using the sparse shelter for herself and her two daughters — it’s the only thing holding her family together.
Rental income from a full slate of tenants keeps the Lighthouse’s operating costs afloat. Everyone has a roof over their head, which is the main priority, but the old hotel hallways are dank, yellowed and depressing. Layers of rotten carpet shift spongy under your feet, while the occasional tenant slips ghostlike out of their tiny apartment, heading downstairs for a smoke and a reprieve from their four walls.
The lobby is a hub of organized chaos. The old Capri bar sits adjacent to the counter, still authentic with its original wood panelling and retro stippled ceiling. A few couches scatter the room, where clients sleeping curled around backpacks with their backs to the world. A female tenant sits on an old chair next to the doors, eagerly watching the vending machine being replenished. She complains when she hears there won’t be sandwiches for lunch, but brightens at the prospect of lasagna for supper. A stocky man, with wild hair and a face both blank and furious, asks the busy receptionist for a glass of water so he can take his pill. Clients drift in and out of stairwells and the rather precarious looking elevator, busy going nowhere.
It was a tiny snapshot of what’s going on in that building across from the theatre. Now let’s get to the Hope, shall we?
Hope springs at the Lighthouse, driven by a small but tight team of people, including Jordon and communications director DeeAnn Mercier, who guided me through the tour. At any given moment, you’ll find DeeAnn, Jordon and the team switching hats seamlessly from counsellor, educator, to punching bag, advocate, landlord, to first responder, to savior. They make hundreds of decisions per day. Decisions that radically impact the lives of their clients, yet they manage to radiate stoicism and compassion.
Pockets of newness, such as the recently opened floor for Saskatoon Health Region patients suffering from mental illness, reflect the promise of Hope for the entire facility. The brand new residential tower stands bright and tall next to the grimy exterior of the old hotel. Above all, there are plans — so many plans — for programming and facilities to make the lives of Lighthouse residents better. From indoor gardens to detox centres, DeeAnn and Jordon refuse to see any space as anything other than a place for great things to come.
An occasional story floats to the surface of a resident who overcame impossible odds. It’s these stories that help keep Lighthouse staff going forward — and must keep the Lighthouse doing the same.
With a friendly smile, John welcomes guests into his sparse one-room home at The Lighthouse Supported Living building. He sits in a wheelchair and motions for one of the guests to sit down in a well-worn chair on the other side of the room. John says he is ready to be interviewed about The Lighthouse, located at the corner of Second Avenue South and 20th Street East in downtown Saskatoon, where he has resided for about 2 ½ years. He jokingly notes he is missing some body parts; he says due to an accident, he lost the bottom of both of his legs. But John doesn’t want to get into the details of the past, and instead focuses on the positive. He says The Lighthouse has changed his life. “It allows me to function fairly normally,” he says. Though John readily admits his home is far from luxurious – even calling it “a dive” –it is home. And he appreciates the changes that are occurring around him at The Lighthouse.
“It’s still a sow’s ear, but they’re making progress,” he says. “You can’t fix everything all at once, otherwise nobody would be living here.”
John says when he first came to The Lighthouse after leaving the hospital he didn’t like it, because he had lost a “big chunk” of his independence. Now he’s enjoying living downtown and calls himself “an explorer”; with the use of his scooter, he notes, he was able to attend every free festival this year. He also enjoys looking at the city’s downtown architecture and visiting the farmers’ market. “You can be independent here,” he says. “I got no complaints about this place at all,” he adds.
The Lighthouse Supported Living Inc. is a non-profit organization with a vision of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and helping those in need. The Lighthouse includes shelters and suites and provides transitional and long-term housing to clientele facing a variety of challenges, including chronic addiction, mental health issues, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), acquired brain injury, and mental, physical and intellectual disabilities. Don Windels, executive director of The Lighthouse, said the organization’s location is a good fit, because there are a variety of supports downtown available to the tenants, including physicians and psychiatrists. “It’s safe. There’s a lot of services around us,” says Windels.
According to The Lighthouse’s website, its mission is “to assist high needs, at-risk individuals in reaching their potential by providing safe and affordable housing, nutrition, social supports and opportunities through programming designed for personal growth, enabling them to reach higher levels of independence.”
About 22 full- and part-time staff members work at The Lighthouse, where tenants receive three meals and one snack each day. Tenants can also develop skills by helping out at The Lighthouse — in the kitchen, for example — and by attending drug awareness, self-esteem, anger management and other classes offered in the building’s classroom. There are also hopes for a computer lab to soon occupy some space in the facility, so that tenants can look for jobs online and work on their resumes. Windels believes homelessness is on the rise in Saskatoon, due in part to the high cost of rent and an influx of people coming to the city. Many people have expressed a need for more affordable housing in Saskatoon, and that is coming to fruition. All three levels of government — municipal, provincial and federal — have contributed to The Lighthouse’s new housing facility, which is being built downtown next to the existing facility.
The new building will include amenities such as one- and two-bedroom suites, a classroom, a multipurpose room and a nurses’ station, and is expected to be complete in May 2012. In addition, The Lighthouse has a fundraising campaign, known as the “with Heart” campaign, to raise money for upgrades to the existing facility and to raise awareness about homelessness in the city. For Windels, the best part of his job is seeing the difference The Lighthouse makes in Saskatoon.
“The most rewarding part is to see lives changed,” he says.