Can you share how the organization got its start?
We were started by a couple, John and Siny Prinzen. They were seeing people coming out of psychiatric institutions, and realized that these folks could live in community, and didn't have to be locked up anymore. And we firmly believe that today. But the challenge that existed then, and still exists, unfortunately, is that folks are coming out of these hospitals without support, networks, or community, disconnected from families, and with few life skills to be able to live independently.
John and Siny had a three-bedroom house, so they put their two young children into one bedroom and started taking people into their now-empty third bedroom. They did that for a couple of years, then realized that they could only help so many people at a time, and that the need was much greater then what they alone could do. So they brought together their friends, business folks, and church leaders. They incorporated, then eventually rented, and later bought, a group home. That ran up until 2001, but by the end of the '90s, after the organization had done some amazing and wonderful things, it was time for the organization to reflect and ask, are we meeting the need?
The board had to actually decide if they were going to close their doors, or reinvent themselves. In terms of scale and financial sustainability, the then-current model had some challenges, and our sector had changed during that time. So by the end of the '90s, people were having trouble finding affordable housing once they came out of a rehab program. So we redesigned our model.
There's a sense that this is a network that's growing across the province. When did that vision first start to germinate within your minds?
Around 2004 I started asking people living in our Hamilton program how they got here. It was a similar story: often, they said, they ended up in a psychiatric hospital in Hamilton. And then on discharge, they needed to continue to receive some outpatient services, and due to a lack of transportation, ended up staying in Hamilton.
So we started saying, "if you could live in the place where you grew up, would you?" Some people said, "yeah, I would be back near my mom," or, "yeah, my dad is getting old, and I'd like to be able to support him," but lack of choice meant that a lot of folks were staying in large urban centres.
We intentionally started looking at particularly small urban centres, and asking: how do we create affordable housing in smaller areas so people can stay in the place they call home, where they have their natural supports of family, friends, faith community? Because when people move to a new city, it's almost impossible for us to re-create that for people. You can make new friends, connect with new colleagues, find a new church, but these communities are never going to love you quite the same as the ones you grew up in.
The main three things we are looking for, for us to be successful in a community, is: first, political will. Second, it's municipal staff. They're the ones, when there's money available, who write the policies around social housing. And third, the community in general. As a Christian organization, that's typically the church community. This would be the case in Simcoe. We had the same experience in Mississauga and London, where it's faith communities that are recognizing a problem. And more often, as with all three of those locations, these are faith communities coming across denominational boundaries, and coming together for the good of their communities, which I find very inspiring.
Have you given thought to branching out into Niagara?
Yeah, we have. We've looked at a couple of different opportunities, and we've been in conversation with a couple of churches. Every time a church closes, it's an opportunity to have that faith community do something with those assets.
We love to repurpose buildings; those are always opportunities for us. In the case of Simcoe, it was a church Sunday School hall. And when I say that, think the size of an elementary school with a full gymnasium. There must've been coat hooks for 400 kids in the hallways. The church was no longer utilizing that space as it once did in the '50s when it was built, and we were able to take that building and convert it into 40 apartments.
The challenge in Niagara is, we still need to see the other two elements. I think one of the big changes for us -- and we're constantly watching the political situation in different places -- we've taken notice that St. Catharines has rebranded itself as "The Compassionate City". I've heard that Mayor there speak, and I find it incredibly inspiring. You can hear a culture shift.
How does the average person help Indwell? If someone is thinking, I want to somehow get involved, or somehow contribute, how does one do that?
Let me tell you about our values, because I think that's what this all comes out of. We have three core values: dignity, love and hope.
Dignity is about the fundamental belief that all people are created in the image of God, and therefore have inherent worth, dignity, value, and gifts. We take the same approach with our supporters that we would with our tenants.
When it comes to support from our community, for some, that's a small monthly donation. For others, it's a significant capital donation when we're doing a project. And we have people that volunteer. As we're having this conversation, my mom is the one at the front desk, volunteering one day a week as our receptionist. We have other people that do everything from coming to do a tea time with our tenants, to people who have retired from construction, who come and volunteer one day a week to do maintenance.
Our second value is love. We think Jesus is serious when says "love your neighbour". So we just invite people, in whatever way they know how, to come and do that. For some it might be helping once a year to plant our gardens, because they like horticulture.
And then hope… that's where we hold out hope that no matter how bad today is, we are a part of a new story, a redemptive story. And, sometimes for any of us, there are times when we can't see hope for ourselves, so we need a strong network around us that holds out hope, and reminds us that there is that possibility for a better future.
It sounds like you take the best of any individual, and what they can offer the world, and incorporate it somehow into Indwell. Is that accurate?
That's a fantastic snapshot, and I would say on a good day, we're really successful at that. And I think that's where we've seen the most and biggest transformation. All of us do have abilities, but, particularly in the healthcare sector, we often start with "what's wrong you?" And we talk about things like disabilities, and we get stuck and focused on what our shortcomings are. I don't know about you, but if I'm reminded every single day of who I am based on the sum of my deficits, life starts to become pretty dark. It's hard to see hope.
Our mission statement is "we create affordable housing communities for people seeking help, wellness, and belonging". It's intentionally very positive. This isn't just an affordable house where you get low rent and we leave you isolated by yourself. This is affordable housing communities where our staff have a support role, but also our tenants. If we can call out some of those abilities that people have, and if people can share those, it's truly transformative.
I'll share with you an example that just warms my heart: at our Woodstock location, we have a commercial kitchen there that's inspected by Public Health. Someone in our community there found out that the public schools have a breakfast nutrition program, but the challenge they were running into is that not every school had a kitchen, and many didn't have a public health-inspected kitchen. So our tenants stepped in and now, once a week, are baking muffins in our building; they do that as volunteers, and supply the schools for their nutrition program. We have folks who used to be locked up in institutions like psychiatric hospitals and such, or living on the street and homeless, who are now providing nutrition for kids in schools.
I'm a Christian, and I see that as an example of the upside-down kingdom at work. This is the kind of stuff that Jesus was all about: coming up with a different way of seeing people.
Is there anything that you would like to share that you haven't yet covered that you feel needs to be brought up?
Just to give a sense of the need: here in Hamilton, based on the amount of applications that we receive -- and understand that not everyone who needs housing with support is filling out an application for us -- we need to open a 50-unit apartment building every 2-3 weeks. The Ontario Disability Support Program monthly financial assistance is insufficient to getting anywhere near being able to get housing from the market. And it's getting worse, particularly as Hamilton gentrifies, and places where people used to be able to afford and find housing don't exist anymore. In Niagara, there's a beautiful story of reinvestment in downtown St. Catharines as well, but it's not all that different.
So the scale of the need is enormous... for many in our program, you're talking about years and years and years before you can get in. And that, frankly, is not good enough. I think that's just what pushes us every day to say okay, we have to do better.
Our vision statement is "hope and homes for all". If we actually believe that, it means that we have to be in the business of creating hundreds of units a year, if not thousands. Right now we have 210 apartments under construction, but even there we're not getting close to meeting the need. So that's what I would leave your readers with: the need is enormous. We think we have a pretty successful model in which to meet that need, and we just welcome your audience to join us in any way that they can.