There is a strong connection between a safe, comfortable home and positive mental health outcomes, yet many people facing mental health challenges live in substandard homes.

“All people should have access to quality housing,” said Faith Bodnar, Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association Saskatoon branch. “When you live on a limited income and in poverty, you develop an attitude where you don’t deserve things. … People will minimize or diminish what they need.”

Bodnar has experience housing people with complex needs, and staff at CMHA Saskatoon had been discussing different ways they might help their clients access housing. 

A partnership with the National Affordable Housing Corporation was a perfect fit. Bodnar and the CMHA Saskatoon believe in an inclusive housing model where anyone can belong in any neighbourhood — a belief that aligns with the NAHC’s mixed market rental housing model.

In 2023, the NAHC and CMHA Saskatoon partnered to create the Coming Home project, which provides supportive living for people and families with mental health afflictions. 

Faith said CMHA Saskatoon was careful in its approach to the program, starting with a lower case load and increasing it over time.

“We had to learn as an organization and didn’t want to grow too fast,” Bodnar said. “Getting into housing is a really big leap and we had to make sure the kind of support we provided was consistent with other support we provide.”

‘A world of difference’

CMHA Saskatoon hadn’t been involved in housing before the partnership with NAHC but they had seen the huge gap their clients face when it came to housing. 

“We didn’t want to be property managers,” said Morgan Wickett, Director of Programs with CMHA Saskatoon. “Our expertise is in case management, working with people, advocacy, and assisting with people in various ways in their lives.”

The NAHC properties are a big step up for many of the program participants — a newly-built townhouse with a separate entrance and in-suite laundry, in good areas of the city. The developments include market rentals, too, so the renters interact with people from all walks of life.

Tyler Mathies of the NAHC, Faith Bodnar of CMHA-Saskatoon, and Saskatchewan Housing Corporation Executive Director Roger Parenteau at Aspen Heights celebration event on June 22, 2023.

Wickett likes how NAHC involves the CMHA Saskatoon client in holiday activities like Halloween and Christmas. For example, at Christmas, NAHC and CMHA Saskatoon purchased Christmas lights for all the residents, and had NAHC arrange for one of the CMHA Saskatoon tenants to be the Christmas Elf pick up location, giving them a chance to meet their neighbours. 

Most of the suites are small-pet friendly, and Wickett says that’s important for the people they work with.

“For so many people, animals are an important part of their life — they help fight their loneliness,” Wickett said. “For some people, it’s made a world of a difference for them.”

As a Supportive Independent Living Coordinator, Bart Voswinkel is the touchpoint for many of the individuals in the CMHA Saskatoon housing program. He has seen great success with those he has worked with.

One person had previously been living in the Pleasant Hill neighbourhood, and had been afraid to leave his house at night, impacting his ability to find work. The move to the Aspen Heights neighbourhood gave him a better opportunity to find work, and improved his quality of life.

“We can see the impact on the individuals,” Voswinkel said. “It’s rewarding not just because of the units, but how their life changes around the units.”

Along with having a dedicated contact at CMHA Saskatoon, participants in the program have a contact through the NAHC and Real Life Rentals: Adina Wilson, Director of Tenant Inclusion & Support. Voswinkel has worked closely with Adina to accommodate renters, saying she’s been very responsive and involved.

Wilson says it’s vital for the resident to have a contact with CMHA Saskatoon who they can rely on.

“That’s where the partnership is very valuable because CMHA Saskatoon is there consistently — when they move in, that relationship is already built, so it helps the tenant develop a relationship with us.”

NAHC relies on those relationships with the tenants so they can understand what the tenants' needs are to help make their tenancy successful. NAHC likes partner organizations to have at least one year of experience with an individual before accepting them into the housing program.

A community barbecue at Aspen Heights in 2023.

Teamwork and trust

The partnership between the two organizations also allows them to bring teamwork to problem solving when challenges arise.

Some program participants are living on their own for the first time, or living with a roommate for the first time, and so they need help navigating these new experiences and relationships.

“We’ve all had roommates in our lives at some point,” Wilson said. “It’s not easy living with a roommate, and it can become even more challenging when you combine that with mental health challenges and/or physical or cognitive disabilities.” 

When the tenant needs help resolving an issue, NAHC and CMHA Saskatoon have a system for coming together to discuss issues in a safe way, and regardless of what’s happening with tenants, they meet every few weeks to ensure they’re connecting on important topics.

“We’re all at the same table talking about challenges and success,” said Faith Bodnar, CMHA Saskatoon Executive Director.

Bodnar says it’s communication and teamwork like this that makes the partnership work. And creating a strong relationship will allow the two organizations to work together long term, supporting the people who are at the heart of the program.

“We challenge each other to think differently,” Bodnar said. “Through this partnership, we can challenge each other and we trust each other.”

This Affordable & Supportive Independent Living- Sector Transformation Model for Individuals with Mental Health Challenges project received funding from the Community Housing Transformation Centre (the Centre), however, the views expressed are the personal views of the author and the Centre accepts no responsibility for them.