Michael Lyster
Homes First

the story

The United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that “everyone has a right to an adequate standard of living for health and well-being… including… medical care and necessary social services.” Now, it’s no secret that Toronto suffers from a chronic lack of affordable housing, and from highly inaccessible social support systems. Some people with extra needs, deemed the “hardest to house” have nowhere to turn at all, even within social support systems. That’s where the Homes First Strachan House program comes in. The team at HF embodies the UN’s legacy by going out of their way to ensure that those who are “hardest to house” are not only housed, but also receiving intensive social support all day everyday. 

The most pivotal moment for the Homes First team is when they transitioned the Strachan House program to specifically serve the needs of those who are “hardest to house”. Oftentimes, these are people who belong to minorities that experience systemic trauma. On top of that, their needs are often complicated by age-related health conditions. While prioritizing Homes First, Strachan House offers high level supports that allow guests to maintain continuous housing and age peacefully in place. The House currently supports 83 individuals with specialized staff support available 24/7.

The Director of Development & Homelessness Initiatives of Homes First, Jamie Facciolo, and Director of Housing and Shelters, Michael Lyster, have spent years on the front lines and have been advocating for an integrative housing model for decades. In one instance, they received notice that client “G” was about to be discharged from a shelter due to concerns about his and others’ safety. However, G had already been banned from every other shelter in the city due to his complex needs and would have nowhere else to go. Jamie and Michael knew they needed to step in. When provided with not only a roof over his head, but also integrative social support, client G was finally able to live peacefully among others. The story of client G is just one example of why permanent, supportive housing and attentive care is so vital to healing. Those who are “hardest to house” are still people. People who deserve kindness, support, and dignity on their path to healing. The team at Strachan House are pioneers in their field, and the City of Toronto regularly consults with them.

When COVID-19 hit, the integrative housing infrastructure already in place by Strachan House helped to prevent exposure to the virus and shield residents from the worst effects of the pandemic. For a centre with a very street-active population, only two residents ever tested positive for COVID-19. However, the pandemic has resulted in perhaps a lesser known problem with fatal consequences. During the pandemic, there has been an increase of supply and toxicity of street drugs. In the last year and a half, Strachan House tragically saw two fatal overdoses. Strachan House’s unique support model and emphasis on safe harm reduction has elevated the site into the role of community leader. In light of these events, residents are seeking more harm reduction supplies, and the team at Strachan House are working hard to meet these needs and continue running all other support services.

Strachan House is a highly innovative program that effectively champions the UN’s notion that housing is a human right and essential to public health. Their work reminds us that people are more than a problem to be solved. Through networks of support and care, even the “hardest to house” can become the best version of themselves.