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WHEN ENDS DON'T MEET: Residents of new housing facility offered 'dignified living'

Passage House, just north of Newmarket, is providing 18 formerly homeless individuals the services and support needed for a year so they can get their lives back on track
York Region and Blue Door representatives at the region's newest transitional housing facility, Passage House: Monica Sangoi (from left), Randall Profitt, Debbie Thompson, Amalee Lavigne, Michael Braithwaite, and Graham Hendren.

There is a new home in York Region for 18 formerly homeless people getting their lives back on track.

Passage House, located just north of Newmarket, is the region’s newest transitional housing facility. Offering social services and apartment-style units, operator Blue Door is attempting to guide its first intake of residents to stable housing by the fall, about one year after they first entered. 

York Region’s director of homelessness community programs, Debbie Thompson, said some residents have been experiencing homelessness for a long time and have come from difficult situations, but the facility is offering life skills and more to help.

“The important thing is to set individuals up for success,” she said, adding the team works to "ensure people are able to find housing in the region that fits their needs and then they have the skills, the awareness, the education, the knowledge, the support in order to thrive in their own in their own place.”

The benches and garden beds outside Passage House. Joseph Quigley/NewmarketToday

Creating more transitional housing is part of how York Region is trying to combat ongoing and rising concerns around homelessness. Unlike emergency shelters, the transitional facility allows longer-term stays to help individuals get back on their feet. 

The Housing York Facility was completed last fall with 18 units, increasing York Region's capacity to 48 transitional housing beds. 

In its first intake of residents, Blue Door CEO Michael Braithwaite said the new facility is working well and came about rather quickly.

“It’s been an incredible experience so far,” he said. “The idea, and it’s not always easy, is that immediately you come in, ‘welcome,’ but at the same time, we’re going to work on your housing plan."

A communal pantry space in Passage House. Joseph Quigley/NewmarketToday

Inside the facility's common area are tables and a communal pantry, where meetings and programming might occur. 

Blue Door runs several programs in partnership with other organizations, including a men’s group, nature walks, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and a paint night. Blue Door program manager of transitional housing and health Amalee Lavigne referred to some of these activities as “therapeutic recreation.”

“It really (is) very communal, almost family-like,” she said. “From there, it’s a lot of separate case management and service navigation.” 

“It’s dignified living when you come in here,” Braithwaite said. “That’s why the region built this.” 

Passage House features a health hub, with regular visits from a nurse and doctor. Joseph Quigley/NewmarketToday

There is also a health hub where medical practitioners attend to treat residents. Lavigne said a registered practical nurse attends three times a week, with a family physician attending every other week and other health workers also coming by.

Lavigne said it is important to have those health services on site, with the landing area where Passage House is located also including the men's shelter, Porter Place, and family shelter, Leeder Place, not having services nearby. 

“We’re kind of in the middle of nowhere,” Lavigne said. “It’s kind of tricky to get out to a clinic.” 

Each of Passage House's 18 units is equipped with a complete kitchen in the living space. Joseph Quigley/NewmarketToday

The 18 units spread across two floors feature two rooms each, a bedroom and living space. The units feature fridges, kitchens and any cookware a resident might require. 

“Everyone is so keen to have their own kitchen,” Lavigne said. “Everyone is so excited to cook their own stuff. They often times bring down meals they’ve made for us to eat.” 

The ultimate goal is to have residents move onto more permanent housing. They have up to a year to achieve that, though there is some flexibility in the timeline. 

One of the bedrooms in passage house, featuring a double bed. Joseph Quigley/NewmarketToday

A resident of Passage House, who requested anonymity, said it feels like a home.

“I came because it’s a great opportunity to get back on my feet and opens the door to other opportunities,” the resident said. “I am just taking it a day at a time, but the possibilities for my future are endless.”

Thompson said the region is working to ramp up transitional housing spaces, though is still figuring out how many more units might be needed in its planning.

“We know that the visibility of homelessness has increased. We know there are more people experiencing homelessness for the first time,” she said. “We see transitional housing as one part of the solution.” 

Aurora transitional housing stalled

But those efforts have received some pushback in Aurora. The region is attempting to construct a 68-unit facility there, 31 of which would be for transitional housing space like passage houses. Nearby residents have come out in force to oppose it, fearing the possibility of increased crime and decreased property values. The project is stalled as Aurora council delayed giving it zoning approval in the wake of concerns.

Braithwaite said any community building of a certain size will have occasional interactions with police, but nothing major has happened at the house.

“When people have a home, those numbers drop,” he said. 

Housing York manager of operations Randall Profitt said they design buildings to ensure they fit into their surrounding area.

“It feels the same, looks the same,” he said. “It’s important to understand that our buildings blend into the community, and they’re well maintained.” 

The property on which Passage House is located is separate from the urban area. Asked about keeping such facilities separate from more typical neighbourhoods, Profitt said there is a downside in a lack of easy access to services.

“Would this building look any different if it’s on Yonge Street? Would this not be an attractive feature on Yonge Street?” he said. “It’s a balance. Everyone has the right to the same level of opportunity to get services.” 

Passage House represents housing that goes beyond “good enough,” Braithwaite said, and is instead just “good.”

“Housing is a human right, and every single resident in our community, every single one, deserves a safe place to call home,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing here.”