Debbie MacBean is a big believer in second chances.
As a former crack cocaine and crystal meth addict living on the streets, MacBean and her partner Tim Crittenden were given a fresh start four years ago through a local outreach program.
“It was a big turning point in our life to have someone actually care enough about us to help us find housing and stay straight,” she said.
“Before this, we were moving around a lot and couldn’t seem to keep a roof over our heads. So it’s given us stability, consistency, organization and rules – which are good.”
MacBean says curiosity led the couple to start experimenting with different drugs. They hit rock bottom about eight years ago, when drug addiction left them homeless, without food, and in poor physical and mental condition.
“It’s shocking to think how controlled a person can be to let themselves go like that,” said MacBean, who now uses her experience to help others. “The drugs are so powerful that it’s a self-destroying, downward spiral.”
The couple moved away to Kelowna for several years to get clean, before returning to Hope four-and-a-half years ago. At that time, the only affordable housing they could find was renting from a local drug dealer. No longer part of that lifestyle, MacBean said the experience there was an eye-opener.
Three months later a mental health professional referred the couple to Paul Keller, the area’s homeless program coordinator, who provided them with a room through the Thunderbird Motel Project.
MacBean burst into tears the first time she stepped into her new 356-square-foot home.
“The relief, the safety and the comfort of having a place to live is just huge,” she said. “It provides a stable foundation on which to build. We are a dysfunctional family here, but we help each other out as much as we can.”
The Thunderbird Motel Project was launched in 2008 through a B.C. Housing contract with the Hope and
Area Transition Society. It was developed as a low-barrier housing initiative to support individuals
experiencing chronic homelessness. Admittance to the Thunderbird is based on the applicant’s motivation towards working on identified personal barriers at the root of each resident’s instability.
They often suffer from multiple barriers, including addiction, mental illness, and limited social and life skills. Initial goals of the program consist of maintaining self, maintaining rental unit, managing finances and participating in
activities of interest on or off site.
“We use everyday living as opportunities to model and teach and problem solve,” said Keller, adding that collective policies and rules are developed with residents at the Thunderbird.
“We try to take people off the street and give them an opportunity to change. Their lives aren’t together and there’s no foundation. A lot of people don’t have positive modeling to draw on.”
Keller and the 24-hour support worker on site regularly work with mental health, legal advocacy and a nurse practitioner to provide residents with the care they need.
About 70 per cent of people at the Thunderbird are from Hope and 23 per cent identify themselves as aboriginal.
The motel consists of 25 fully-furnished, semi-independent units. Most residents receive a monthly income between $650 and $950 from the Ministry of Social Development, through income assistance, and rental supplements from B.C. Housing. Of that, $550 goes toward rent which includes laundry, utilities, heat and cable.
The Thunderbird utilizes a social meeting space, 1.5-acre cooperative garden and light maintenance as key activities for residents to partake in. The new garden is made up of several different vegetables, two greenhouses and 24 fruit trees.
Keller said horticultural therapy is used to build self-worth, increase physical exercise and promote cooperation.
While the Thunderbird Motel Project has been a source of contention in the community for years, Keller said residents are better off in supportive housing than left on the streets.
“People on the street are more of a strain on society,” he added. “We often judge people to have skills we shouldn’t. They are honestly doing the best they can with what they have.”
The Hope and Area Transition Society, with the help of the local RCMP, collected statistics in April on 17 residents before and after receiving placement at the Thunderbird to determineif negative police contacts (defined as someone being charged, a suspect or source of complaint) increased or decreased as a result of the program. Overall, the number dropped from 50 to 24 over that time frame.
Keller said the program’s success can be measured by individual progression. For some residents, being off the street, maintaining housing and paying rent is huge step forward.
“When you’re entrenched in street life for 20 years, it doesn’t just disappear,” said Keller. “It’s a process that takes time. Everyone is a little different.”