Study turns attention to rural homelessness

Paul Mayne//Western News

Occupational Therapy professor Carrie Anne Marshall, whose research focuses on social determinants of mental health, has explored the idea of an integrated supported living model for those facing homelessness in rural communities.

Homeless individuals in rural areas are offered few options when it comes to assistance in their communities, frequently forcing them into urban centres in search of help.

With many of those same individuals living with mental-health or substance-use issues, stopping that flow and allowing them to seek assistance closer to home creates better outcomes for all involved, according to a recent Western study.

“It’s almost like homelessness doesn’t exist outside major cities,” said Occupational Therapy professor Carrie Anne Marshall, whose research focuses on social determinants of mental health, including homelessness.

“That’s because there are no shelters in their home communities, forcing them to migrate. They show up in a city they’ve never been to before, or don’t know very much about, and they are completely cut off from people they know and what they know. Sometimes it turns out very badly, very quickly.”

Marshall recently explored one unique solution to the issue in Prince Edward County. The Big Island Case Study looked at a model that provides supports to rural residents in need who choose to remain in their community.

Marshall explained that good mental health often requires meaningful social relationships with others. Forcing homeless persons with mental illness to leave their communities in search of support may place their mental health at risk.

As part of her research, Marshall met with Brian Hart, a retired priest who had purchased a former fishing resort on a three-acre property along the Bay of Quinte more than a decade ago. Along with the main residence, there are five cabins on the property.

“He was in Picton (P.E.I.) one day and met someone sleeping on park bench. He offered him the use of one of the cabins to help him get back on his feet. That soon became two and three more people, to where there are 18 individuals living on his property, all people who would have lost housing,” Marshall said. “He’s really filling this gap in a community where there was really nothing else. There’s a beauty in small communities taking care of themselves.”

Marshall wants to know if this model, which includes peer support and even the creation of a small business to sustain the property (now an aquaponics venture), could be recreated elsewhere.

“I’m not suggesting we simply build a bunch of shelters in rural communities. But this is an example of permanent supportive housing in a rural community that is working, that is filling an underserviced need,” she said.

“If we can work this into some sort of policy around rural homelessness, then perhaps we could secure some funds (municipal/provincial) to reproduce this elsewhere when understanding the culture of specific rural areas.”

One of Marshall’s keys takeaways was the cohesiveness with the Big Island community. With close to 20 individuals living together, and dealing with mental health and substance use issues, one would expect conflict. But working together on the business, taking care of the home and volunteering to help neighbours, has led to a “sense of purpose” facilitative of mental well-being.

“Participants indicated that living together with one another meant they could receive support from one another, recover from loss experienced before coming to Big Island, and didn’t feel alone – which had been their experience in other situations in the past,” Marshall continued.

“The person leading the initiative views himself as a peer, and both gives and receives peer support within the group. Being able to stay in a rural context meant they were able to be close to nature, which was important to them.”

Marshall added the participation of existing Big Island members as mentors, moving forward, could assist in creating similar projects in other rural communities across the province.

“They found a place where they belonged. Living with others in a small community, and receiving support within that environment, enabled them to work towards personal wellness goals they had established for themselves.”