Housing is a fundamental issue for people of any age, and any circumstance. When a older person is experiencing alcohol problems, whether or not she or he has stable housing can have a great effect on the person's life. A stable housing situation often makes a big difference in the kinds of help a person is willing to consider from others.
In many cases, the first time that someone (a service provider, building manager, family) becomes aware of a problem is when the senior's rent or other housing related bills are not getting paid. Sometimes, the person is facing an eviction. It is often the reason that people decide to make a referral to a counselling or other treatment resource.
Why and When Does Alcohol Become an Issue?
Even older homeowners run into problems if their taxes, utility bills, or house payments aren't getting paid. In some cases it is forgetfulness because of the drinking, in some cases it's because there is not money left at the middle or end of the month because of the drinking.
In other cases for renters and owners, the older person seems to be having more and more difficulty coping on her or his own. Issues such as self neglect can come up. There may be concerns about “at risk” behaviours- smoking and drinking, repeated falls, invasion of pests, cleanliness, which can lead to the call to family, "Your mother can't live here anymore."
On occasion, the person is causing problems for others (noise, wandering the halls), although much of the time, the harm is directed to self. Some people may notice a difference in the way some managers and others treat between the "nice, quiet” older drinker and the "not so nice" older drinker.
The older person’s judgment may be impaired because of the level of drinking and he or she lets “unsavoury people” into the building, or whoever happens to buzz the front door. In some cases, the memory problems are significant and the person's ability to make decisions is very impaired. Counsellors note that in some cases, the person may exhibit strange behaviour that may indicate impaired judgment such as tearing up the eviction notice, and honestly believing that if the notice no longer exists, the eviction problem is gone, too.
Sometimes there is a downward spiral of housing stability: each eviction leads to the older person to less and less stable housing in worse and worse communities, where the person becomes vulnerable to other harms in addition to the alcohol. Under-housing (staying “here and there” temporarily) and homelessness are real prospects for some older persons, especially when there is a combination of substance use problems and mental health problems.
We've found that in many cases building managers are often uncertain what to do to help, or eviction is first and their only tool. That's the bad news. Is there any good news? Yes, some communities have trying different kinds of approaches that seem to work well.
Toronto, Ontario: Community Outreach Programs in Addictions (COPA) has been working with the Toronto Housing Authority to reach and help older adults in rental housing. In some cases, COPA’s first contact point with the older person is around the eviction notice. A person may not be interested in getting help with an alcohol problem when having nowhere to live tomorrow is a more pressing problem for them. A COPA counsellor helps with this “housing problem” and that then becomes a starting point for a positive relationship for addressing other problems.
In some instances, the counsellor works with the person and the building manager/ housing authority to set in place a way to see the rent gets paid first. It may be through having pension cheques set up as direct deposit, and having rental cheques coming out as automatic payments. It might be through a “voluntary trusteeship” (basically where someone the older person trusts takes on the responsibility of receiving cheques and paying the bills, in some communities, there is a non profit organization that can take on this responsibility if the person agrees). These arrangements only work if a) the older person freely agrees (and sees it in his or her own best interest) and b) the manager/ housing authority is willing. Obviously, a person might decide to withdraw from this arrangement.
For more information on COPA’s work, contact the organization by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prince George, British Columbia: Prince George has developed Legion Wing, which is a supportive housing program for older adults with mental health and substance abuse issues. Talking about the program, Louise Holland points out:
"This filled a big gap in our community that helps support older adults in our community with these issues remain in the community when they can no longer perform some of the tasks that are necessary for maintaining shelter and nutrition, i.e. paying rent, going grocery shopping, organizing appointments. Indeed, one of the very key features of our supportive housing is that the staff takes a role in organizing individual's finances. I believe this program is a psychosocial intervention in that it provides a psychosocial milieu, a structure that supports individuals to be successful in the community. "
Working With Rental Housing Staff
Building managers in rental housing can be an invaluable resource to service providers helping older adults who are experiencing alcohol problems.
Like all other people, their positive or negative experiences with people who have had alcohol problems can influence their attitudes. Some managers or owners may simply want to “get rid of the problem”. Others are more flexible. Still others want to help see the situation change for the better for their tenant, but the people to whom they are accountable (owners, board of directors, property management companies) may take a hardline: “She hasn’t paid the rent on time, get rid of her.”
Some managers have a good understanding of how alcohol problems can develop. Others simply accept many of the myths and stereotypes about people with alcohol problems. For example, most people, including building managers do not know very much about the process of recovering from an alcohol problem. Most people are not aware that there can be ups and downs (“slips” or “relapses”). They may erroneously think that the person has “failed” to get the alcohol problem under control.
A community organization called BC Coalition to Eliminate Abuse of Seniors or otherwise known BCCEAS (email: email@example.com or phone (604) 437-1940) developed a series of information sheets called “Tips of the Trade” for building managers, to help them better understand the needs and issues facing their older tenants. One of these “Tips” is on alcohol issues with practical tips for the managers.
Other topics for Tips of the Trade include
- Understanding tenants with hearing problems
- Understanding vision loss
- Elder abuse (recognizing it; responding to it; resources)
- Memory impairment
- Understanding “pack rats “or hoarding behaviour (sometimes known as "The Incurable Collector")
- Death and dying : Emotional aspects of deaths in the building (pdf)
They developed "Tips of the Trade" as part of a very interesting project in 2000-1, involving older tenants and managers. Among other things, the project identified the kinds of competing pressures that building managers are under. There are plenty, including isolation in their work; lack of awareness of community resources –knowing who to call, knowing what to say to get action; owners’ expectations; and tenants’ needs. The project also helped identify some community initiatives in British Columbia to reach out to building managers (see Resources, below).
In other parts of Canada: COPA is an outreach program in Toronto that has been able to work with the housing authorities in mutually beneficial ways. As previously noted, COPA helps older persons with alcohol and other substance use problems.
In Toronto, the Housing Authority arranged for COPA to share office space in one of the buildings with a physician who was coming in once a week. This was great for COPA and the Housing Authority, because it meant making good use of “under-used space”. It saved dollars that COPA would otherwise have had to spend for a satellite office, and it meant the Housing Authority had a regular COPA presence in that apartment building. COPA staff note that when there are services in addition to COPA in the building, it is easier to reach out and help, than if COPA was there alone. For more information on COPA’s work, contact them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
New Westminster, British Columbia: The Seniors Housing Information Program (SHIP) has developed a small booklet for building managers with information on how to reduce evictions among older tenants. The booklet helps managers deal with problems in a positive manner early on, and helps them identify the available community resources. Find out more about SHIP at: www.seniorshousing.bc.ca/. Contact SHIP at (604)520-6621.
You can find information on BCCEAS’ initiative to work with building managers in these two articles
“UPDATE ON ‘Steps to Safety and Security for Seniors in Rental Housing’” at page 20: www.harbour.sfu.ca/gero/shup_pdfs/SHUPV1%7E2.PDF
“Local and Provincial Initiatives in Rental Housing Safety” at page 1-3, See: www.harbour.sfu.ca/gero/shup_pdfs/SHUPV1%7E1.PDF
How Can Apartment Owners, Property Managers and Public Housing Societies Help?
There are many ways, including by
recognizing that sometimes a tenant may have or may develop an alcohol use problem
responding early on by making a referral to a community addiction service, rather than waiting for things to reach a crisis,
providing basic training for managers and other staff on aging, better understanding of older adults' needs
identifying and eliminating house rules that might isolate or hinder support of older tenants,
permitting addiction or other related services to come into the building to serve the needs of seniors in their homes,
permitting seniors to be safely detoxified in their apartments,
talking about alcohol and medication issues in a non-stigmatizing, non-judgmental manner,
developing non-discriminatory entry and leaving policies for tenants,
providing education to building managers and boards about alcohol issues affecting older adults in a way that helps them respond openly and non- judgmentally to potential and existing alcohol/ risk problems in the building,
developing supportive housing alternatives, using staff who understand the nature of alcohol problems and are able to work with tenants from a harm reduction approach.
Where to Find Renters' Rights Information
Moving West to East across Canada ( note all provinces have information available):
Tenant Resource and Advocacy Centre (TRAC) (www.tenants.bc.ca/) publishes Tenants Survival Guide (http://www.tenants.bc.ca/factsheets/TSG-web.htm). The Guide is available in Spanish, Korean, French, Punjabi, Vietnamese and Chinese,
They also have great Facts Sheets on many topics.
TRAC updates this information to reflect changes to the Residential Tenancy Act in British Columbia.
Topics for these special info sheets include: moving in and paying rent; checklists when you move in or out (with a sample move in/ move out checklist); finding out who your landlord is; serving notices; privacy and quiet enjoyment; repairs and services; rent increases; moving out and giving notice; evictions; getting your security deposit back; arbitration; roommates, and pets.
Also, in BC: The BC Coalition to Eliminate Abuse of Seniors (email: email@example.com) has prepared a renters’ guide specifically for senior renters in British Columbia. Good general information, but it may need updating as a result of changes to the tenancy law.
In recent years, Alberta has begun developing some plain language information on Renters Rights.
A Guide to the Law in Alberta Regarding Landlord &Tenant A publication
of Student Legal Services of Edmonton. 2006. (pdf - 25 pages).
“Reference Guide to Landlord and Tenant Law in Alberta” at: www.acjnet.org/docs/landten/tenantobligations.html
Community Legal Education offers “Frequently Asked Questions” on topics such as Landlords and Tenants at:
The following link will tell you the Manitoba law, but it is not really plain language for tenants or landlords, or others trying to help.
Actually the guidebook was written to outline branch policies and procedures for staff, landlords and tenants. The information on termination for non-payment of rent or other reasons is somewhat helpful. See: www.gov.mb.ca/cca/rtb/gbook/toc.html
Two useful resources for tenants in Ontario:
Toronto Housing Association of Tenants (THAT) a public housing group http://ca.geocities.com/thatcorporation and Ontario Tenants Rights
www.ontariotenants.ca/ which is a very comprehensive site.
Housing Help has “Tenant Information” and “Frequently asked Questions”. Their information can be found on the Internet at: www.housinghelp.on.ca/faq.shtml
Interestingly, they note that there is a seven year waiting list for subsidized housing in the Ottawa area.
The Landlord's Self-Help Centre (www.landlordselfhelp.com/lshc.htm) is an incorporated non-profit organization that provides information, assistance and educational programs to Ontario's small scale landlords free of charge. Service providers can find information on Ontario legal issues such as tenant privacy, and offenses under the Tenant Protection Act.
The Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association (ONPHA) carries some information for tenants, particularly on the new rules for non-profit housing tenants (See: www.onpha.on.ca/about_non_profit_housing/tenants/#rules), including the rule that the tenant must report any increase in income within 10 days or lose their rent subsidy. That means, if the Old Age Security or Guaranteed Income Supplement increases (even by 45 cents), every recipient who receives a rent subsidy has to report it. Imagine the paper work generated through that rule!
ONPHA notes “Many non-profits think this rule is too harsh. They are now working through ONPHA to try to make this rule fairer.”
This rule creates real hardship for older tenants, especially those with cognitive difficulties, physical challenges, mental health, alcohol or other problems in their lives.
Answers to some frequently asked questions about renting in Quebec can be found at:
Landlord obligations and rights: www.rdl.gouv.qc.ca/en/4_0/4_1.asp?path=3
Tenant obligations and rights: www.rdl.gouv.qc.ca/en/4_0/4_1.asp?path=3
Régie du logements Québec: Des réponses aux questions les plus fréquentes. www.rdl.gouv.qc.ca/fr/7_0/7_1.asp
Principales OBLIGATIONS du propriétaire au moment de la délivrance du logement www.rdl.gouv.qc.ca/fr/4_0/4_1.asp?path=3
Principales OBLIGATIONS du locataire en cours de bail www.rdl.gouv.qc.ca/fr/3_0/3_1.asp?path=2
This link will take you to the Tenancy Guide:
Other Resources (Information on Homelessness)
There are very few written resources in this area. However, if you are interested, here's some background info in the "Action Pack on Alcohol Policy, Mental Illness and Homelessness" produced by Alcohol Policy Network (APOLNET), which can be found at: www.apolnet.org/actpacks/ap_hom.html
For additional research, try the Databases section of APOLNET, which can be found at: www.apolnet.org/resources/res_dat.html
The report “Urban First Nations People without Homes in Saskatchewan” can be found at: www.siit.sk.ca/PDFfiles/Homeless.pdf
Page last updated: Saturday July 07, 2007; Webmaster: firstname.lastname@example.org
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