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Progressive Housing Society marks 30 years of helping

With the help of the Progressive Housing Society, Don Rock has been able to get his life back on the rails with an apartment in New Westminster after he fell into addiction while researching a book he was writing on crack cocaine addicts. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
With the help of the Progressive Housing Society, Don Rock has been able to get his life back on the rails with an apartment in New Westminster after he fell into addiction while researching a book he was writing on crack cocaine addicts.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

There was a time when New Westminster’s Don Rock didn’t have much sympathy for people who are homeless or addicted.

That all changed when the writer, who had seen “some success” as a novelist, was commissioned to research and write a book about the subject.

“It was my job to interview and spend time with addicts, especially crack addicts,” recalled Rock, 49.

“I wasn’t empathetic at that time. I didn’t take the lifestyle all that seriously.”

It didn’t take long for him to see things differently.

He travelled to different cities to hang out with addicts for his research. And when he found many were reluctant to talk to him, out of concern he might work for the police, he did what made sense to him at the time: he started using crack cocaine himself.

Somehow he managed to complete his research and meet his writing deadline.

Then he took stock of what had happened: he was now a crack addict. And it was evident to all around him—he dropped 50 pounds from his 200-pound frame.

In 2008, Rock moved from Calgary to Vancouver after being told of a treatment program that could help. But that first round of rehab didn’t stick, and he went back to using again.

He found himself living in a two-storey home in New Westminster with 12 other people, mostly addicts in various stages of recovery or still using drugs.

Eventually, Rock had to get out and away from the other addicts, the cockroaches and the mice.

He ended up on the street then got taken in by a friend who let him stay in a winnebago parked in his Burnaby backyard.

That’s where he lived for five months until he met outreach workers from Burnaby-based Progressive Housing Society, an occasion that set him on the path to sobriety.

The homelessness link

Progressive Housing Society started 30 years ago as the Burnaby Association for the Emotionally Disabled when it purchased three homes and took in 15 mental health clients of the local health authority.

At the time, Riverview Hospital was being planned for closure and the province was moving towards a system where people with mental illnesses would live in the community as independently as possible, explained the society’s executive director, Jaye Robertson.

That focus on assisting people with mental illness persists to this day, despite a common misconception that the society’s main role is to help people who are homeless.

It just happens that there is heavy overlap between the two populations. Between 80 and 90 per cent of people who are homeless deal with the health issues of mental illness, addictions, or both, Robertson said.

Through their homeless outreach work, staff meet many people living on the street who, in addition to poverty, are mentally ill but have never been formally diagnosed. They have no idea of the resources available to help them.

“Many of them have never even been connected with a service provider of any kind.”

Outreach workers refer the mentally ill homeless people they meet to the Fraser Health Authority, which then provides assistance and treatment. The support they provide often comes full circle, when the patient is then referred to Progressive Housing and its programs, such as Supported Independent Living.

One such client is Herb Ritchie, 62, who was first diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in the early 1970s when he was living in the Queen Charlotte Islands.

There he worked in fisheries and as a mechanic but eventually found himself being committed to mental health facilities off and on due to his illness. Each time he’d be given medication but he’d relapse.

After more than 30 years, he left the Queen Charlottes for the Lower Mainland, where he had been a student at Simon Fraser University decades earlier. He moved, he said, in a search for better medical treatment.

He arrived in Burnaby several years ago and ended up on the streets for a time, sleeping in the bushes by Middlegate Mall, before HighGate Village was built.

“I just chose to do it, I wasn’t thinking right,” Ritchie said of his homelessness, which he still finds traumatic to talk about.

Once outreach workers found him and started getting him the help he needed, his life, and health, made great strides for the better.

The society’s support workers have helped him find an apartment in Burnaby and taught him the life skills to live on his own. He is eating better and exercises regularly, and feels healthier all the time.

Ritchie noted that one of the medications he takes was prescribed to him years ago and didn’t work, but thanks to the ongoing support of the society, is now proving effective.

He now volunteers regularly at the society’s offices, all of which he said gives him the confidence to live a healthy, stable lifestyle.

'Never felt judged'

As for Don Rock, he met the society’s outreach workers at a community lunch held at West Burnaby United Church. It didn’t take long for him to tell his story to the society’s case workers.

“They were not screening, they were just understanding what my needs might be.”

Some months later, they found him a studio apartment in New Westminster’s Sapperton neighbourhood.

A few days after he moved in, he was evacuated due to a fire in the suite next door. Again, the society was there for him, he said. They found him a new place to live until his Sapperton home was repaired so he could return.

Rock said addicts are “really in a place of shame,” so it was significant that he never felt the society’s staff ever judged him.

Instead, they encouraged him to seek treatment and gave him information on the options available.

When Rock’s mother died suddenly, that finally gave him the kickstart he needed to quit using drugs and get help.

He’s been clean now for almost two years. And he’s back looking for work and writing a book, the story of a recovered alcoholic he met in recent years.

“If there is what I would refer to as a true humanitarian it has to be in the image of Progressive Housing,” Rock said.

“They truly believe in what they’re doing, and are committed, without shaming, to the well-being of an individual.”

Progressive Housing Society is marking its 30th anniversary with a silent auction fundraiser on Thursday, Sept. 22, 5:30 p.m. at Pacific Breeze Winery, 6-320 Stewardson Way, New Westminster. Entrance by donation, please bring cash or cheque.

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