The key to a new life
For the first time in more than a decade, Pat Bebonang has a key to his own place.
He had been living on the streets of Kamloops for the past four-and-a-half years, calling dumpsters and doorways home.
Before that, he spent his time couch surfing and living with friends.
For the first time in so many years, Bebonang is sober more often than not.
And the Henry Leland House, he says, helped him unlock his potential.
The 36-year-old chronic alcoholic proudly shows off his bachelor suit, with a twin bed in the kitchen, adjacent to a love seat, chair and TV.
It’s the first time he’s ever had cable.
It’s the first time he’s ever had a place to call his own.
“I used to be hammered every day,” he says, casting his eyes to the floor.
“Living on the streets, that’s not living — it’s survival. This changed my life 100 per cent — it keeps me going.”
The Henry Leland House opened last May and is a supportive-housing development for people who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness.
Operated by the ASK Wellness Centre with $500,000 in annual funding from BC Housing, it is a housing-first approach, where people who may have addictions, mental-health issues or street behaviours — such as prostitution — are provided with housing and given access to support services to address their challenges.
With help, the residents create their own “wellness plan” and can stay in the house for up to two years, after which the goal is for them to be able to live independently.
Although it’s not perfect, ASK Wellness executive director Bob Hughes says this type of harm-reduction model is an opportunity for people to become healthier, live in a safe environment and break the cycle of homelessness.
“It’s the idea that housing is health care and that, slowly, over time, people improve,” Hughes says.
“You don’t get these deeply entrenched behaviours — you know, crack, alcohol, heroine attractions, sex-trade involvement — you don’t overcome those overnight. It’s a whole process of change.
“And there are some people in there who are really making some huge strides and some big changes.”
Inside the former Whistler Inn at the corner of Fourth Avenue and St. Paul Street, there are 19 bachelor and nine one-bedroom rooms with 24-hour staffing and strict visiting policies.
There are also 16 cameras inside and outside the non-smoking building, though not in any of the units.
Despite there being a no-drug policy in the building, Hughes says he’s guided by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s notion that “the state has no right into the bedrooms of our nation.”
Sometimes, he says, people can’t deal with their social and addiction issues and, at least this way, they have a roof over their head.
“The vast majority of these people have gone through treatment five, six, up to 15 times. It hasn’t worked because it’s often so black and white that, if you use, then you’re out of the program,” Hughes says.
“If we did that with this population, then we’d have gone through every person in that building at least three times. They’d be gone.”
However, if the safety of the building and the other residents is compromised — as one person was found to be selling drugs to other tenants — they can be kicked out.
But Bebonang is OK with a few rules, saying he knows they are in place for a reason.
Nevertheless, living with others who may not be as committed to recovery is hard.
When he sees someone completely inebriated, Bebonang has to escape to his room for fear he will slip — as he has so many times before.
“It makes me want to get like that, too,” he says with a sheepish smile.
“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
For the most part, Bebonang says people are trying better their lives, but it’s not an easy process as old habits die hard.
But he’s going to try his best to end an addiction he’s had for most of his life and attributes the wellness plan and the staff at Henry Leland House as part of his success.
“It gives people the ability to make their own decisions based on what they’re dealing with, whether it’s doing drugs or drinking,” Bebonang says.
“It teaches discipline and what’s important in life: Is having a roof over your head important or do you want to continue drinking?
“I choose this place. I don’t want to jeopardize living here.”
The past nine months have taught him to grocery shop, pay bills, live on a budget — essentially to live independently as an adult.
“Things I never knew how to do,” Bebonang says.
Although he’s nervous about the two-year mark and what may come, Bebonang is optimistic about his future, hoping to quit drinking for good and get into social work.
“But, for right now, I love being here,” he says. “I take pride in myself and am living happy, clean and free.”