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(In the News) Breaking the link between brain injury and homelessness

From the Ottawa Citizen article by Blair Crawford, dated April 5, 2022. See the full article here.


The project has been looking at the barriers that put so many people with brain injuries out on the streets and what needs to be done to help them.

Jason can tell you funny stories about growing up on the Beaucage Reserve on Lake Nipissing, recall anecdotes from his many years working as a carpenter and boast about the time, nearly 50 years ago, when he snuck into a Rush concert underage.

“Widdifield High School in North Bay,” he says. “I was too young to get in, but the roadies were all out back smoking joints and I said, ‘Hey! Can you guys get me inside?’ That was before even Neil Peart had joined the band.”

But balancing a budget? Paying his phone bill? Filling a prescription? Those tasks don’t come so easily to Jason, who is among the 50 per cent of homeless or precariously housed Ontarians who live with an acquired brain injury.

“We made a connection with Rush,” said Jason, 61, who asked that his last name not be used. “I’m going to remember that. But everything else we talked about? That just seems to get sidelined.”

That’s where Shannon Lebrun comes in. For the past year, Lebrun’s been helping Jason get his life in order. He’s one of 22 Ottawa residents Lebrun has been assisting in a Homelessness Prevention Project through Vista Centre Brain Injury Services. Funded with $75,000 seed money from the Trillium Foundation, the project has been looking at the barriers that put so many people with brain injuries out on the streets and what needs to be done to help them.

“With brain injury comes executive functioning deficits,” Lebrun said. “Things like attention spans, reasoning, problem solving, motivation, communication, organizing.

“Because a brain injury is invisible, the symptoms are often minimized, misdiagnosed or ignored. They can be interpreted as poor motivation, poor engagement, rudeness or defiance so they’re not being provided with the appropriate level of support.”

Jason made his living as a carpenter until a back injury forced him off work. His partner died in 2013 and he now survives on CPP and the Ontario Disability Support Pension. He’s also an alcoholic. He has been, he says, since he was a kid growing up on the reserve.

Compounding his problem was an overpayment from Ontario Works and ODSP that was auto-deposited in his bank account, leaving him now $8,000 in debt. For a while he was paying his rent with a credit card.

“That was a big problem, using that credit card. I was good for a while, but it had an interest rate that was unbelievable,” he said.

“I went from making $700 a week to a $1,000 a month. I lost my phone. I lost my cable. Then I had to figure out how I was going to pay for my groceries. What comes first? Well, you’ve got to eat … .”

The injuries that brought the 22 into the Vista Care program are varied. Several had brain tumours. Some were savagely beaten in assaults or injured in car crashes. More than half, like Jason, are dealing with substance abuse problems. All were at risk of losing their homes — or were without homes to begin with.

“What’s very important is to meet people where they’re at, without any barriers,” Lebrun said. “Homelessness, brain injury and addictions go hand in hand. If we told someone that they couldn’t get a house until they’d dealt with their addictions — well, who could deal with their addictions when they’re worried about where they’re going to sleep tomorrow?”

Lebrun said it’s important to adopt a “housing first” approach.

“Once you have a home and you don’t have to worry about where you’re going to sleep or whether you’ll be warm, then you can start to work on the other things.”

At the start of the study, 15 per cent of the participants were living on the street, 10 per cent were in shelters and 50 per cent were in insecure housing and at risk of homelessness. A year later, just five per cent were still on the street, 15 per cent were in shelters and only 20 per cent were insecure. Thirty per cent now have stable and secure housing.

The help Lebrun gives Jason seems simple for anyone who doesn’t suffer from a cognitive disability. She helped him renew his health card. She convinced his landlord to get long-delayed maintenance completed. She negotiated a reduced repayment plan to help him get out of debt. She got him a phone.

“It’s a lot cheaper to do things like that than it is to wait until someone ends up making a hospital visit,” she said.

To listen to the two together, it’s clear that their relationship is more than just a client and his service provider. The two banter like friends.

“You know what the most important thing is?” Jason asked. “Conversation with people. You hear this from senior citizens. They’re so alone. They don’t have anybody to talk to. Even if Shannon calls me on the phone, that’s a good thing. When you stop working, you lose half your conversation … . It’s lonely. It’s very lonely.

“It’s unbelievable how much this lady has changed my life.”

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