MacMillan House Offers A Place for Recovery amid Vancouver’s Opioid and Housing Crises

Social housing is essential to the city’s most vulnerable residents, now more than ever

Robert Toovey stands outside MacMillan House a social housing duplex that has enough space for 20 men to live together. (Joseph Keller)

Rick Vickers has been in and out of recovery for most of his life. He says that he can’t stay clean without a safe place to live, but believes that he has now found that safe place at Surrey’s MacMillan House.

MacMillan House is run by the Lookout Society which operates shelters, psychiatric facilities, safe consumption sites, and social housing in 11 communities across the Lower Mainland and beyond. The society provides 900 units of social housing.

As the housing affordability crisis in Metro Vancouver makes finding and securing stable housing increasingly difficult for low-income people, it also puts enormous strain on the organizations responsible for providing help to homeless people and the working poor.

More and more people are finding themselves in need of help in Vancouver, and social housing programs are now more essential than ever for sustaining healthy communities and lowering the number of individuals living on the street.

Vickers came to Vancouver from a small town out east and discovered heroin not long after. He came to MacMillan House several months ago following some time in a detox program.

Tucked away in a sleepy North Surrey neighbourhood, MacMillan House shows that social housing has already saved lives. The duplex house is home to 20 men, many of whom are older, in various stages of addiction recovery. The place has a calm, “homey” atmosphere. The two housing units there each have fridges that are kept well-stocked with a variety of fresh food. It’s a far cry from the life that its residents were living before they arrived there.

“I’ve been in and out of recovery for a long time—mostly in. And I have a lot of support here. I have to stay here. I have to get some clean time, go to meetings,” says Vickers. “I personally cannot stay clean when I’m out there [on the street], and I’ve tried. If you have nowhere to go, it’s very depressing. You’re in shelters with people all around you using.”

Vickers can personally attest to the benefits that social housing programs like MacMillan house bring, not just to homeless people suffering from mental health and disabilities, but also to the community at large.

“I’ve committed crimes all my life. I don’t do crimes when I’m sober,” he says. “I won’t steal anything. I won’t steal bubblegum—but when I’m using, I’ll do armed robbery. I get to that point where I’m just focused on doing drugs.”

Supportive social housing programs like MacMillan House do a lot more than simply give people suffering from addiction a safe place to stay. They provide them with the tools necessary for rebuilding their lives.

“It’s helping people and it’s getting people into recovery that need it, and it’s getting people off the streets. It’s helping people who are going through divorces and they need a place to go. It’s helping people with mental disabilities, people with no mental disabilities,” says Vickers. “I think it’s a positive [project for the community] one hundred-and-ten per cent.”

He adds, “If there wasn’t places like this, I’d be dead. There’s no way I’d live this long with the way I’ve lived, not a chance.”

Robert Toovey is one of the organizers at MacMillan House. He lives in the building full-time to keep things running smoothly and to provide guidance. He has also spent 25 years recovering from addiction.

“We’ve endeavored to make this a home environment. Most of these people are coming from rehab, sometimes detox, sometimes right out of the shelters,” says Toovey. “By giving them a place where they can feel they’re at home, they can not worry about the incidentals in life … we can teach them about physical cleanliness, keeping your house clean, just basic things that we take for granted.”

People at MacMillan House are able to stay there for up to two years. While living in the house, residents also take part in group meetings and trauma counseling. When they’re ready, the staff at MacMillan House will help them build a resume and find employment.

Residents are given a certain amount of freedom to go to external recovery meetings, religious services, and other engagements. However, they are expected to show that they are serious about recovery if they are to stay. Obviously, drug use is strictly forbidden, and residents are not allowed to have any contact with people who are actively using.

“You start to actually live a regular life again and your focus becomes completely different. There’s one thing you need to change and that’s everything,” says Toovey. “One of the best things that you can do [for these people is get] one addict helping another.”

Toovey grew up in an abusive home—an experience that he says almost all of the residents of MacMillan House can relate to—and was living on the street by the time he was 13 years old. He was involved in a biker gang before getting a job as a long-haul trucker at the age of 20.

“I made a damn good living out of it, but most of that ended up going up my nose or in a pipe,” says Toovey.

At 37 years old, it took a punch to the head from a friend to get Toovey on his road to recovery. He was able to get clean through a recovery program in Ontario, and took his job at MacMillan House as a way of helping others get to the place where he is today.

Supportive recovery homes such as MacMillan House provide a vital service, but they are far from the only model of social housing necessary for the Metro Vancouver community.

By nature, social housing needs to take a variety of forms to serve a variety of needs. Supportive home programs where people with addiction and mental health issues live together and support each other differ from simple low-income housing options for the working poor. The concept behind all forms of social housing is providing people with a stable quality of life so that they can transition to once again supporting themselves.

“We’ve been focusing on trying to provide more opportunities to people who are incredibly disenfranchised and incredibly vulnerable, that don’t typically get a choice in terms of what to do next to meet their basic needs,” says Shayne Williams, executive director of the Lookout Society.

Williams says that communities with more low-income housing are more capable of coping with the housing crisis.

“We’re really seeing a time when municipalities have to be zoning,” he says. “They have to be identifying land that they’re willing to put forward for that investment to provide affordable housing in their communities.”

According to the 2017 Homeless Count, the number of homeless people in Metro Vancouver has risen by 30 per cent since 2014. This is putting an intense strain on organizations like Lookout Society. In addition to the “traditional” demographic of people coming to Lookout for services, Williams says there is also a cohort of impoverished working folks who are finding themselves priced out of housing or displaced due to renoviction or demoviction.

The good news, he adds, is that people in this demographic typically don’t need help for very long, and can usually be helped out of the system faster the those who traditionally use Lookout services. Still, the increased number of people in need is incredibly taxing.

“The longer the crisis goes, the more people that get disenfranchised, the more people that live with this challenge of housing, the more that get entrenched in this lifestyle of homelessness, the more difficult it gets to attach themselves back to the community or the systems that they feel have failed them,” says Williams.

“It’s a lot more competitive than it was, and that is obviously making our jobs a lot more difficult, but it also decreases people’s self esteem, their optimism, their hope. It impairs their ability to be well connected to their communities.”