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Affordable housing key for mental health

Eric Hunken
Eric Hunken's life has radically improved since moving into the Village, a supportive housing complex in Chilliwack.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/THE PROGRESS

Editor's note: This story forms Part 1 of a four-part series on living with mental illness in Chilliwack. Read the introduction to the series, here.

It’s a new life for Eric Hunken of Chilliwack. These days he speaks freely about his mental illness to police officers and nursing students, maintains several websites, and sits on the board of the Chilliwack Mental Health Advisory Committee. He drives around town on his electric scooter, eats right, and has quit smoking and drinking.

An ex-addict, Hunken credits much of his radical change in lifestyle to finally living in a subsidized supportive housing complex in Chilliwack called the Village. The place has inspired tremendous recovery for the 58-year-old man whose latest suicide attempt three years ago had him committed in Chilliwack hospital’s psychiatric unit for a month.

Hunken was diagnosed thirteen years ago with bipolar and borderline personality disorder. He describes the first as extreme shifts in mood, and the second as people not knowing who he was. He also has what psychiatrists term “suicidal ideation,” an almost obsessive preoccupation with suicide.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, Hunken installed computer servers in downtown Vancouver as a network systems specialist. While his personal life was chaotic, he took home a decent salary and was proud of his work. But there were days when colleagues didn’t recognize him.

“They wouldn’t know who I was. Sometimes I would be really angry and difficult to get along with, and that could last for weeks on end. And then a week later I’d come back, and I’d be super cheerful, and happy, and everything would be wonderful,” he said.

Hunken would also go through periods of extreme activity, such as staying awake for a week feverishly grinding out creative projects before falling into a dead sleep to recover. And thoughts of suicide were never far off, ever since his first attempt at age 15.

Life careened for the worst when he suffered soft tissue damage to his back from a car accident at 45 years old and received his mental illness diagnosis at the same time. To Hunken, the doctor’s prognosis sounded like a life sentence.

“The one that diagnosed me said, get used to it, you’ll never work a day in your life again. Don’t even think about it. That’s why I got really depressed. I started using drugs, ‘cause I felt totally useless. Because I had been working full-time since I was 15, 16, years old...That’s when I really got sick. I couldn’t handle things. I started trying to kill myself.”

Hunken has been in the CGH psych ward three times for suicide attempts, where he received heavy doses of medication that primarily made him sleep. The psychiatric wing of the hospital looks much like other wards. Eight or so rooms, each hosting two or four hospital beds, leaf out from a tidy hallway in an outdated section of the Chilliwack hospital. The small ward is quiet, with calm staff who speak in even tones behind neutral expressions. The hallway leads to a large common room with round tables and padded chairs, which in turn connects to an outdoor patio space.

But unlike other hospital wards, the ground-level patio is enclosed by a floor-to-roof fence. While a couple of people sit quietly at a concrete table, one woman paces nearby, muttering to herself and occasionally calling out to anyone who looks in her direction. There are no hospital gowns, as patients wear their own clothes or ones borrowed from the ward’s secondhand clothing closet.

The psychiatric ward is for temporary emergency stays of five to seven days, where people such as Eric Hunken come in times of crisis. People are either released once a psychiatrist has granted permission, or check themselves out, depending on the case.

Those who face a longer road to independent living may be transferred to Cedar Ridge. Located in a forgotten annex of the main hospital building, the long-term care institution is part of Chilliwack’s answer to the closure of Riverview Hospital. Between 1903 and 2012, thousands of people with mental health issues received treatment or lived at Riverview’s expansive red brick mansion in Port Coquitlam. The hospital was set up at a time when society’s relationship to the insane was custodial: house them, care for them, but they will probably never recover.

Now, the emphasis at Cedar Ridge is on rehabilitating people so that they can live increasingly independent lives. Staff believe that all of the 20 current residents could learn to manage their illnesses well enough so as to move out of the institution and into housing complexes, such as the one where Eric Hunken lives, where people with mental illnesses lead independent lives but have the support of a staff on site.

But Cedar Ridge staff say there is nowhere to send their patients. Chilliwack has 53 affordable permanent housing units for adults with mental health issues, but likely over a thousand people with mental illnesses who survive on the government’s persons with disabilities (PWD) allowance of $906 a month.

“Without housing, they have nothing. When you try to help somebody who has an illness, and you provide services, and you provide medication, but you don’t give them anywhere to live, they cannot manage their illness,” said Chilliwack Supportive Housing Society manager Kate Lister, who has spent three decades fighting for affordable supportive housing for people with mental illnesses in Chilliwack after her own son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The last few decades have seen a shift from housing people with mental illnesses in big impersonal institutions, to providing homes within individual communities. The model is similar to the evolution in special education. Rather than having children with special needs in one classroom, they are now spread across classrooms, which is healthier for them, but more costly on the system.

While Riverview has closed, sufficient funding for housing has not trickled down to Chilliwack and other communities that have absorbed people with mental illnesses.

Chilliwack’s lack of affordable supportive housing is the biggest impediment to recovery for people with mental illnesses, according to Lister. The opinion was echoed by staff at the city’s mental health unit. Lister believes people need a clean, safe and stable home that they can afford, where they know they won’t be thrown out. Only then can they begin to manage their illness and live a fuller life. Recovery is hopeless, she says, without a permanent home.

Lister also believes that such housing units reduce the overall cost to society. When people are healthier, they aren’t draining hospital or enforcement resources. Lister has calculated that if the government purchases an apartment in Chilliwack and rents it to a person with a mental illness, it would take only five years before the cost is paid back in savings to the social system.

Eric Hunken, after being released from the Chilliwack hospital that last time in 2010, had nowhere to go.

“A lot of horrible suites all over the place. When you don’t have a job, and you have very little money, a lot of places won’t take you. The nicer apartments won’t take you. Even if you can move in with someone who can afford it, they still won’t take you. And so you’re stuck with really crummy places,” he said.

He ended up in a house with twelve people, where dividers in the living room and hallway created separate bedrooms. With mental illness, living in close quarters with other people can be especially difficult.

In 2011, Hunken was the first person to secure a coveted apartment in the Village, run by the Creative Centre Society. The modern complex on School Street is the reincarnated version of a building that was home to Olympic athletes in 2010, shipped here in pieces from Whistler. All 22 current residents have a new 450-square foot bachelor apartment for which they pay $375, the maximum allowed for housing for those on B.C.’s PWD assistance.

Hunken’s own immaculate suite has natural light streaming through two walls of windows, onto his organized kitchen and living space, which is complete with a full office setup of two computers and a large printer. He has a stationary exercise bike in one corner, a recently purchased air conditioning unit, and stores his electric scooter on the ground floor by the 24/7 security room.

It wasn’t long after Hunken moved into the Village that he began to lead a much more normal life.

“This building had a lot to do with me getting health,” he said. “Having a safe, clean place to live.”

It’s difficult to eat well when rent is most of one’s income, he explained, and it’s difficult to get well with a poor diet. He hasn’t visited the Salvation Army food bank since moving into the Village. He grows some of his own food in a community garden on the front lawn of the Village, and drives to the cheaper grocery stores on his scooter.

Hunken is only on a small anti-depressant now, an improvement for someone who used to take heavy anti-psychotics that turned him into a “zombie,” spending much of the day asleep. He still has mood swings, but has learned to manage them. He still thinks about suicide, but distracts himself with community involvement.

He has become a well-known public speaker on mental illness in Chilliwack, and educates RCMP officers, students, and health workers with his story. He maintains a website of resources for people living on low income or PWD in the city, at chilliwackspace.com, and wants to create a resource booklet for the city. Hunken also shares his journey on a blog. He has joined a stand-up comedy troupe and breaks stigma through humour. While he may never fully recover from the illness that plagues him, Hunken has made major strides in living a better life and becoming an integral community member in just a few years.

Read Part 2 on the employability of the mentally ill in next Tuesday's Progress. Part 3 will explore the impact of social structures, and Part 4 will focus on addiction and criminal behaviour.

akonevski@theprogress.com
twitter.com/alinakonevski
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