It is impossible to describe a typical day in Newcastle Place. Born as it was in a flurry of action with the quick dismantling of Nanaimo’s Tent City in 2018, and the rapid pulling together of “temporary” accommodation for its former residents, Newcastle began in a blur of motion, and has been a place of dynamic change ever since. Housing up to 78 resident clients at a time in a maze of connected container houses, it is a place of human drama, of occasional turmoil and – perhaps surprisingly – frequent joy.
The Newcastle Nucleus
For Sandra Fox, Program Manager at Newcastle Place, days start early. She has been with Newcastle since day one, experiencing the good and the bad as the program has grown and developed through the years. Her normal shift starts at 7 in the morning, but she frequently shows up on site at 5 to connect with the night shift team. This connection is very important to Sandra.
She has spent a significant effort in building a team that can weather the sometimes turbulent realities of Newcastle – a team that can come together to encourage one another and support clients, all in the midst of ever changing day to day realities.
“You have to be the kind of person where you’re structured, and you keep track of all of the loose ends,” says Sandra with a wry grin, “but at the end of the day you have to be aware that it can all go south.
“I get back to email fast…if I didn’t get back to emails right away, nothing would get answered…because the structure changes – it could be an overdose or if could be a celebration – you have to roll with the punches.”
While any supportive housing program will be dynamic, Newcastle is particularly unpredictable, in part due to its establishment as a space where people came directly from the privations of living rough on the streets to housing with no bridge programming in between, and in part because of the impermanent nature of the facility.
The cramped hallways at Newcastle still have a temporary feel to them, despite the fact that the team has worked to make it a livable home for its short and longer term residents through the years. Unlike newer facilities that have bright, airy hallways and purpose built facilities, Newcastle has expanded out of its container beginnings to be a space of created comfort, with a ramshackle hominess deliberately fostered by its team. In Sandra’s words, the program has grown out of almost nothing – “a pizza box and a paperclip when we started…” – to now serving as home for its clients, some of whom have lived there since its inception.
Newcastle is different, too, in the history of its residents. “It is not typical supportive housing – it is like a step before. The people [who came here] they are still close to the streets.”
A moment to connect
When I came for a visit on a recent Thursday morning, the team were gathering for “Snaps” – a daily moment for departing night shift and incoming day shift staff to pause, share a smile, encourage one another and take a breath before the next moment of Newcastle life.
After sharing some necessary updates during these special moments, one by one they pull out little pieces of paper from a big jar, where through the past week, staff members have secretly put in sentiments of gratitude about one of their colleagues. After they are read, amidst chuckles and smiles, everyone raises their hands in ‘snaps’ their congratulations to the staff member being celebrated, while unofficial team mascot, Bear, sidles up to all and sundry for a scratch behind the ears.
“Bear has been with us from the beginning,” I am told with a smile. Owned by one of the residents who brought him with her from tent city, the shaggy brown and black beast (he really does resemble a bear) is a gentle giant bringing cheer and emotional support to the team and residents alike.
Compassion at the core
Despite the complexities of life at Newcastle, there are shining moments of hope and success. Activities make a difference. Though no day is ‘typical’, having a structure makes things better for client-residents whose lives have been marked by chaos, and who may suffer additional challenges as a result of their experiences.
“Addiction and mental health block the sunlight of the spirit,” Sandra says. She and her team aim to let that sunshine break through, bringing new connections and care that help people move past their darkest moments.
Sandra and her team are particularly proud of the activities program. It is client driven, responding to the needs and interests of participants themselves. “We have wonderful programs in the evenings,” says Sandra, “and more activities during the day – a whole calendar of events.
“We’ve been so successful in motivating the staff and the clients to facilitate the programming. We had one client, who put on a Tai Chi night and another who taught basic sewing to everyone! Staff also love to bring their talents and propose workshops for the clients which is so empowering for them. They love to engage with the clients on our programming evenings.”
It makes a difference. Participants go from having no purpose to having something to get out of bed for – a focus beyond the challenges they face. “It gives them a structure. They can say, ‘I have a warm breakfast at 9, we are going to do a workshop at 1, we are going to have support at 4 and then we are going to have movie night or guitar lessons’ – so the meaningfulness is there.”
Even more, much of this program is client driven, with residents jumping in (on their own or encouraged by support staff) to share their skills with others. At times up to 25 people cram into the small common room of the program to take part.
“Those people that participate in the programs, they show the difference – we actually see more sobriety. There is a positive response to this structure, almost always,” Sandra says.
“At Newcastle there are so many problems with the site – it is not perfect and they aren’t the biggest rooms, we don’t have the fancy facility, so we just throw a lot of programs at the people, and it has been received really well. People feel cared for.”
That care takes other forms as well. In a corner of her cramped office, a simple whiteboard tallies the “Lives Saved by Newcastle Staff” – 163 in the last 7 months. It is a stark reminder of the fragility of recovery, and of the often heroic care given by staff to the clients they have come to know.
It is also an illustration of the incredible team that Sandra has built at Newcastle.
“My dream was to build a team and make them proud to be a part of ICCS.” Like all things at Newcastle, it is a constantly changing dynamic – but “we all are committed to making a difference and to sewing up problems on the spot.” As a leader, Sandra models
this commitment, along with a vulnerability and an openness to ideas, built on principles of collaboration and trust. “You can’t come here and succeed if you’re not in it heart and soul.”
On another board in Sandra’s office space, surrounded by warm pictures of staff with family, friends and pets, the daily team builder asks “What is a song that reminds you of high school?” Through the range of ages and backgrounds that the scrawled responses show, a thread of care and commitment shines through. It is a team that for better or worse are in it together.
But for now, Newcastle life goes on. Even while I am sitting with Sandra, staff come in to wrestle with an issue between two clients, collaborating to find a solution to what could have been an intractable problem, ensuring dignity for all. Bear pads down the hallway, music erupts from a room not too far away. Life continues.