Lesson 1: Housing Issues and Problems

Caring Minds (Grades 7-12) > Housing, Homelessness and Poverty > Lesson 1: Housing Issues

Lesson 1: Housing Issues and Problems

Starter: Safe Housing (10 minutes)

  • Share with students the following quote from a member of a Toronto mental health consumer/survivor centre:
    • Safe housing means eating, sleeping and socializing, which leads to volunteering, then a job, then getting better. – Sound Times Member
  • Ask students for a show of hands of who thinks having a place to live is important for health. Why might it not be important?
  • Why does the Sound Times Member mention sleeping? Socializing? Why are these things important? How does safe housing make these things possible?
  • Who are the homeless people in BC, Ontario and Canada?

Discussion: Mental Health, Housing and Poverty (10 minutes)

  • Discuss with students that for many people with mental health concerns poverty and housing are major issues. We now see that the process of deinstitutionalization left many people with mental health difficulties vulnerable to homelessness or exploitation regarding housing. Most people just need a place to call home.
    • There are between 150,000-300,000 homeless people in Canada
    • 1 in 3 homeless persons are youth aged 19 and younger
    • More than 15,000 people with mental health and or addiction are homeless in BC
    • 25% of Canadians spend 30% or more of their income on housing
    • 10.5 % of Canadians live below the poverty line
    • 15% of Canadian youth live in low income situations
    • 10% of Canadians are moderately to severely hungry
  • Ask: Are these figures surprising to you? Discuss.
  • Some people find it hard to hold down a job because of their mental health condition and are unable to support themselves or their families financially. Income assistance or minimal wage jobs are not enough. People living in poverty often can’t afford food, clothing, and health care services.
  • Some people spend what little money they have on street drugs as a way to self medicate and to cope – this can in turn lead to an addiction and can contribute to an increased level of poverty. Some people may turn to prostitution as a means to support themselves and their children.
  • In Canada there is a lack of safe, low cost housing. Many economically disadvantaged people struggle to find shelter on a regular basis.
  • As a result of being homeless, people do not have access to a kitchen or somewhere to store their food, a bath or shower, or a bed. They often do not have a phone number or access to a computer.
  • Living in poverty or on the streets has negative effects for people with existing mental health conditions and can make recovery difficult. Living in poverty increases stress, anxiety and depression and can make positive life changes very problematic.
  • In addition there is the stigma associated with poverty. Some Canadians believe that the homeless are not trying hard enough or are lazy. This kind of attitude is particularly hard on the many poor who are dealing with mental health issues. Stigmatizing attitudes can make the situation unbearable.

Question: How many people do you think CHOOSE to be homeless or live in poverty? Discuss.

Activity 1: Investigating Housing in Toronto, 1987 (20-30 minutes)

  • Toronto in 1987 provides an historical snapshot of the impact of housing issues on former mental health patients. In a period of limited rental accommodation, rents rose and landlords were able to pick and choose among prospective tenants. Lower income people with histories of mental health difficulties were doubly disadvantaged in this housing market. Share the humorous “fake ad” (RESOURCE 1B) from the psychiatric survivor newspaper Phoenix Rising and help students link the ad to activist concerns regarding unhealthy and unsafe housing for people with mental health issues.
  • Divide students into groups and provide each group with one of the articles from In a Nutshell or Phoenix Rising found in the RESOURCE 1C list. Have each group read the article and then pretend that they are investigative journalists in 1987 writing an article about housing for people with mental health concerns. They need to decide who they should interview for their article, picking three interview subjects (i.e. landlords, psychiatric survivors, social workers, family members, friends, politicians) who will give different perspectives on the topic. Then the group writes a list of six or more possible questions.
  • Bring the class back together and share interview subjects and questions. Who are the key people to interview? What are the important questions?
EXTENSION: Tent City, Toronto, 1998-2002
  • In 1998 a group of homeless people in Toronto began building shelters on a piece of contaminated waterfront land owned by Home Depot in the heart of the city. Over time the community grew to several hundred, including many with mental health or addiction histories. For people who found it difficult to adapt to hostel rules or conditions, Tent City offered a more independent life. Governance was informal with one of the oldest residents acting as “Mayor.” Organizations and social service agencies provided portable homes, toilets, health care and food, but there was always the threat of eviction. In 2002 Home Depot hired security guards to evict squatters from the site.
  • Interviews conducted with Tent City residents who were rehoused in secure accommodation following the eviction found that the majority reported that their mental health had been stable or improved since they had settled into new housing. They told researchers that their stress levels had decreased because they no longer worried about where they would sleep each night, if they would be safe in their homes, or about tension with other residents.
  • Students can visit the following websites to learn more about Tent City: http://www.toronto.ca/housing/pdf/tentcity5.pdf and http://www.thestar.com/article/200693

Activity 2: Personal Perspectives (30-40 minutes)

  • It is difficult for most of us to imagine what it is like to have mental health difficulties and housing problems.
  • Have students read the personal stories in RESOURCE 1D and work together in groups to create skits to portray the life stories that they have read. Students can take on the roles of ex-patients/survivors, community and family members, and health care providers. Have the students present the skits to their peers. Follow up the presentation with a discussion about the issues presented.

Activity 3: Slow Progress (10-15 minutes)

  • Have students read article “Last Word: Why is progress so slow on supportive housing” (RESOURCE 1E).
  • Discuss as a whole group the implications for people living in poverty and our communities. What are the stereotypes? What is the stigma around mental health, poverty and housing? What can be done to challenge the stigma and the stereotypes?

Extension Activity: Stigma and Discrimination

  • Have students examine the additional resources for examples of stigma/discrimination with regards to housing. (RESOURCE 1F)

Activity 4: A Day Without Sleep (10 minutes)

  • Ask students if anyone ever stays up all night before a test or for an event? If so what was the next day like? Were you able to function? Imagine what it was like if that went on for a week? A month? A year?
  • Divide the students up into groups and have them complete different tasks that simulate sleep deprivation. Do one of the following and try to perform a task.
    • tie hands together
    • blind fold
    • one eye open, one closed
  • Explain to students that the number one issue for people with mental health issues and housing is sleep.
  • The average person needs 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Homeless people get less than 6 hours.
  • Share with the class the articles “Lack of sleep linked to depression” and “Impact of sleep on homeless” (Resource 1G). Discuss students’ thoughts and ideas.
  • Discussion question:
    • How might lack of sleep contribute to stigma, discrimination of people with mental health issues?

Activity 5: Getting a Job (30 minutes)

  • Explain to students that housing and having somewhere to live can be key in helping people find and maintain a job. Housing provides people with a sense of stability, security and self worth that they need when applying for jobs, getting to interviews, and going to work. This is particularly important for people have mental health concerns.
  • Divide the students into groups of 3 and assign each group a scenario which includes an equal number of factors from LIST A and LIST B:
  • LIST A:
    • chronic skin and foot health issues
    • diagnosis of depression
    • bipolar disorder
    • excessive compulsive disorder diagnosis
    • addictions
  • LIST B:
    • estranged from family
    • no permanent address
    • no phone number
    • no place to get ready
    • only one “good” outfit, purchased from Value Village
    • no clean clothes
    • access to a computer/internet at drop-in on Tuesday afternoon only
    • only able to get a good night’s sleep 2 nights per week
    • no lunch 4 days per week
    • can only afford public transit 3 days per week
  • Have each group brainstorm ideas about the impact of their assigned scenarios on finding, applying for, and interviewing for a job (Can they apply? How might mental health and personal issues make getting and keeping work a challenge? How do they find out about jobs? How do they create a resume? Prepare for and get to a job interview, etc?)
  • Have each group create a skit to demonstrate their understanding.
  • Questions for discussion:
    • How do various factors work together to make finding work difficult for people with mental health concerns who are also poor and/or lacking safe, adequate housing?
    • How might different factors affect their mental health? Stress level? Feeling of self-confidence? Self-worth?
    • What about someone who has ongoing mental health difficulties?

Closure (5-minutes)

  • Have students think first by themselves, then share with a partner their answers to the following questions:
    • What could it be like to live without a bed, clean clothes, electricity, a refrigerator, a mailing address, etc?
    • How might living like this impact your mental health?



1A Safe Housing
1B Investigating Housing in Toronto, 1987
1C Investigating Housing in Toronto, 1987 – Sources
1D Personal Perspectives
1E Slow Progress
1F Stigma and Discrimination
1G A Day Without Sleep


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