After Christine Harris’s son died slowly and alone in a Vancouver supportive housing unit, she vowed to do everything possible to ensure no other parent would have to share her pain.
She last spoke to her son, Lindsey Longe, on July 12, 2012. The 30-year-old was last seen alive by a friend on July 15, 2012. He died the next day of blood poisoning in his room at Pacific Coast Apartments. The use of illicit drugs contributed to his death, according to a coroner’s report.
Longe’s body wasn’t discovered until three days after he died, after days of Harris calling and pleading with Coast Mental Health staff to check on him, Harris said.
In recent years, Harris, an Alberta social worker, has been developing “Got Your Back For Life,” a volunteer program that pairs people living in supportive housing with a “most-trusted person” who agrees to check on them regularly.
The program is halfway through a one-year pilot at PHS Community Services Society’s Margaret Mitchell Place. About 20 residents of the 52-unit temporary modular housing complex near Olympic Village Station signed an agreement with a trusted person who might be a friend, neighbour, family member or staff member.
Together, they decide how often they’ll do health and wellness checks — it might be every day or once per week — and sign contracts with some personal information and ID photos. The trusted person can then go to building staff at the agreed-upon time, or any time they have a reason to be concerned, and ask them to check on their partner.
Harris said the program came out of discussions with supportive housing residents during an event she holds each summer in her son’s memory. She pitched the cost-free program to PHS in July 2018 and by November the trial was underway.
She praised PHS for already doing 24-hour checks at its supportive housing units but said she hopes the program helps push other housing operators to do better, too.
“(PHS is) doing it to give their tenants an extra layer of protection,” she said. “I think it’s amazing.”
Amid the overdose crisis, B.C. Housing updated contracts with supportive housing sites to require them to conduct health and wellness checks at least every 48 hours, and more frequently when deemed necessary.
But Harris believes 48 hours is inadequate. She keeps an eye on coroner reports, which recently indicated that in Vancouver 48 per cent of the people who died of an illicit-drug overdose since 2017 were in “other residences” such as social and supportive housing, SROs, shelters and hotels.
“I don’t believe that we, as a society, have done enough,” Harris said. “We need to give people the power to look after each other and this community. These people care about each other.”
Margaret Mitchell Place resident Chris Middleton said he has a strong network of friends, family and staff who check on his well-being often, but knowing Got Your Back For Life has a “most-trusted person” regularly checking on him, too, puts his mind at ease.
“I have someone else looking out for me,” he said. “A lot of people don’t. They grow up in these buildings and they have no one that is willing to go ‘Hey, how are you?’”
Middleton believes the program is particularly good for people who might not leave their room too often, such as those who are elderly or disabled.
“It should be status quo,” he said. “Everybody would have their buddy that would check in on how they’re doing.”
The program also helps build community. When it came to Margaret Mitchell Place, it brought people together right away, said building manager Byron Slack.
“A lot of people knew each other in the building but hadn’t really congregated in the common spaces,” he said. “It was one of the first programs we brought into the building and it’s a way of empowering neighbours to be able to check up on their friends.”
Slack said staff check on residents on behalf of their loved ones whether or not they are in the program, but said the contract made between its participants, in honour of Longe, is especially meaningful.
“It’s been a really positive thing,” he said.
The program appealed to PHS because it was peer-driven and came at the height of the “prohibition crisis” behind B.C. overdose deaths, said Duncan Higgon, senior manager of housing.
It works as an overdose intervention tool, he said. For example, if partners score drugs from the same dealer, one might go back to their room, take them and come close to an overdose. With their Got Your Back For Life commitment in mind, they might be compelled to make sure their partner with potent drugs is OK.
Staff have embraced the program and it has the added benefit of engaging tenants in peer-to-peer work, Higgon said. Sometimes, tenants don’t like to ask staff for help, so an arrangement with a peer is more appealing.
“For us, that is very meaningful,” he said. “When we were presented with those opportunities, it was really exciting to trial.”
Higgon said PHS is developing trials at three other PHS modular-housing buildings. But there is potential for it to run at all 1,500 units of PHS housing. He would like to see it used to help homeless people, too.
“I really do see it as a uniquely beautiful, supportive and useful tool across a whole spectrum,” he said.
Harris believes that if just one life is saved by Got Your Back For Life, her program has done what it was designed to do.
“Lindsey, in the last while of his life, when he started hoarding, became very isolated,” she said.
“He was living in shame. To have had something that could have connected him with someone a little more tightly would have helped in many ways.”
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