Photo: Paul Leslie and Barbara MacLellan, former Executive Directors
In the early 1980s a group of Christians wanted to help people they knew who were struggling with addiction. They quickly realized that before these folks could consider making changes in their life they needed a safe place to stay and a few good meals. They understood that the story of the Good Samaritan, told by Jesus, was about how to be a true neighbour and they wanted to help people in the communities of Nanaimo and Parksville who had been judged, overlooked, or rejected. They leased a house on Nicol Street in Nanaimo and named it Samaritan House. The once elegant Victorian mansion, built in 1899, had seen better days. Just before they leased it, it had been a rooming house and had a small creek running through the basement. They rolled up their sleeves and made the place warm and dry and began to welcome people in off the street. Soon others saw what they were doing and joined in. The Nanaimo Care Unit for Substance Abuse society was formed in 1989 to carry forward the work. The name changed over the years, and has officially been Island Crisis Care Society since 2004.
Those early workers discovered that the people they helped had often been beaten and taken advantage of, just like in the story of the Good Samaritan. Many had been robbed of their dignity and self-confidence as well. A picture began to emerge of folks with emotional wounds who used alcohol and other drugs to cope with their pain. These early experiences prompted society members to opened the Halliburton St. Care Unit (Later to become the Clearview Detox) to provide specialized services. The group recruited new members who were social workers or had other clinical expertise to serve as Directors, because they recognized substance use as a mental disorders. In 2001 Executive Director Paul Leslie accepted an offer to partner with Island Health to create a crisis stabilization program for people with concurrent disorders. The program was successful and the society expanded under Paul’s successor, Barbara MacLellan. Barb and her husband Granville hired Violet Hayes to manage Samaritan House and a few years later the Directors promoted Violet to Executive Director when Barb retired. Under Violet’s leadership the scope of the society’s work expanded and new specialized beds were created at Samaritan House and Crescent House. Outreach workers were hired in Nanaimo and Oceanside and two larger supportive housing programs were subsequently opened in each community.
When “Housing First” spread around the world in the early 2000’s, leaders at ICCS discovered that it was very similar to the Samaritan Principle and adopted Housing First as a model of service. Housing First provides housing and support without requiring sobriety. Those unfamiliar with the science behind this model sometimes question the wisdom of “giving addicts housing.” The concern is that the pressure to work hard will be removed and people will become a drain on society. We take the concern seriously, and choose a neighborly response. First a good neighbour cares for people with no strings attached as outlined above. Then a good neighbour encourages independence and interdependence with the wider community.
We have seen this happen naturally. When people have a safe place to live, the threat of homelessness recedes. The results can be powerful. When people feel threatened, especially over a long period of time, their ability to make decisions is impaired and their perspective narrows (good summary from Harvard Business on calming the brain). It is hard to make good choices with a brain in a state of constant threat. An important part of Housing First is offering medical and psychological supports once the brain calms down. In our programs, when that happens, clients turn again and again, to the work of developing themselves. “I want to give back” is a phrase we hear often. It turns out that good neighbours help wounded neighbours to be good neighours again. This is the power of the Samaritan Principle and Housing First.