Feeding the good wolf
At age 61, Lori Nicolson is no stranger to adversity. In and out of hospital over a span of 25 years due to a persistent mental illness, the loss of her business, the breakdown of her marriage and associated support system- all contributed to her instability. But some of the most difficult hardships came when she was left homeless with no safe place to call her own.
If she was lucky, Lori would find herself couch surfing for a stint. Otherwise, she slept in the park – sometimes in telephone booths.
“I survived off free food samples offered at the market. I had no space of my own, no privacy. All I had were the clothes on my back. I was everyone’s kicking post.”
All told, Lori experienced homelessness four times between 1993 and 2019, until a collaboration between St. Joseph’s Health Care London and the CMHA- Thames Valley Addiction and Mental Health Services helped connect her with place to call home. At the time, Lori was preparing to be discharged from a mental health inpatient stay at St. Joseph’s, which coincided with the opening of an innovative supportive residence in London - Indwell’s Woodfield Gate Apartments on Dundas Street. A Christian charity, Indwell creates affordable housing communities for people seeking health, wellness and belonging – people like Lori.
“The need for access to better, affordable and quality supportive housing has been an ongoing issue within our communities for some time,” says Jodi Younger, Vice President of Patient Care and Quality at St. Joseph’s. “Unfortunately, there are times when the inability to safely discharge individuals to supportive housing from our mental health inpatient program ties up beds and impacts our ability to provide inpatient care to as many people as possible within our region.”
In 2017, recognizing the significant lack of high supportive affordable housing options in London, Jodi reached out to Indwell, which was looking to bring its supportive housing program to London.
Building upon a legacy of advocacy for the most vulnerable, St. Joseph’s collaborated with Indwell, local government, and other community organizations to design a new housing model opportunity- one that would include both subsidized and supportive living accommodations offered through organizations like Indwell. These efforts aligned with the City of London’s affordable housing priorities and as a result, enabled Indwell to launch two supportive housing residences on Dundas Street; Woodfield Gate, a 66-unit building which opened in 2019; and Embassy Commons, a 72-unit building that opened in 2022.
“The beauty of Indwell’s permanent and affordable housing program is the spectrum of support levels designed to meet the many different housing and health needs that individuals living with mental illness, addiction or disability challenges may face,” explains Jodi.
Individuals can stay in the apartments as long as they choose and can increase or decrease the level of support they receive based on their needs. This model increases the likelihood of success for tenants in maintaining stable housing and pursuing their health and wellness goals.
Natasha Thuemler, regional manager at Indwell, says on-site professionals including nurses, psychosocial support workers, housing support workers and staff who support tenants with addictions and food security are integral to helping tenants maintain their health and housing stability.
“Professional support can help people build skills and find belonging through contributions to a community,” says Natasha.
“Indwell tenants experience improved wellness, become engaged neighbours and live supported independent lives.”
"With all the challenges we have to meet in a day - mental illness or not - everyone has problem solving to deal with and everyone needs support."
For Lori, the support and guidance provided by Indwell’s housing model is the magic ingredient she says has helped keep her out of hospital since becoming a tenant in 2019.
"The eyes on you keep you secure and safe because you know there's somebody there for you. With all the challenges we have to meet in a day - mental illness or not - everyone has problem solving to deal with and everyone needs support."
Having learned how to navigate life with a mental illness, Lori also understands the importance of staying connected with her outpatient care team at St. Joseph’s to remain well in the community and focused on taking care of herself – physically, mentally and spiritually.
St. Joseph’s outpatient and community outreach mental health care teams work collaboratively with Indwell to provide tenants who are St. Joseph’s outpatients, with the necessary clinical care needed to continue living successfully in the community.
“I know the medication only does so much and I have to do the rest. That’s how I look at it.”
This includes participating in psychosocial programs offered to tenants by Indwell staff- some in collaboration with community partners, such as Hutton House or London Intercommunity Health Centre. There is also a focus on nutrition and teaching tenants how to access affordable food resources in the community- helping to decrease food insecurity experienced by those with low incomes.
In addition, Indwell helps to identify and connect tenants with various incentive programs to ensure they are taking advantage of any rebates or assistance for which they qualify and can benefit.
"The programming at Indwell is based on intellect and growth and filled with a whirlwind of knowledge that I use in my everyday life," says Lori.
Her favourite program, she adds, is ‘Feed the Good Wolf,’ which helps tenants deal with challenging individuals and difficult situations, providing them with new perspectives on life’s trials and tribulations.
“I was lost before Indwell. But I found out what home was and it gave me a whole new sense of direction and development."
“It’s based on an old Cherokee legend,” explains Lori. “As the story goes, there is a battle of two wolves inside all of us. One wolf is evil – full of inferiority, lies, ego, hate and greed. The other is good – full of love, hope, peace, empathy and understanding. Ultimately, the wolf who wins the battle is whichever one you feed… and I live by that.”
As St. Joseph’s continues to work alongside the City of London and community partners on solutions to address the current housing crisis, Indwell’s impact is already being felt. The percentage of inpatient beds occupied by individuals who are unable to be discharged from St. Joseph’s Mental Health Care Program due to housing limitations has been reduced from 52 per cent in 2017, to 30 per cent in 2022.
“While there is still much work to be done, it is a much-needed step in the right direction,” says Jodi.
Today, Lori is grateful to have found a safe, affordable and supportive community she has called home for four years.
“I was lost before Indwell. But I found out what home was and it gave me a whole new sense of direction and development. I have a new way of life; one I can be proud of…I started letting people in instead of pushing them away. Now, I try to talk to everybody because everybody can teach you something.”
Her advice to those in a less fortunate situation, perhaps living rough on the streets or struggling with their own mental illness or addiction, is to “stay in the now, reflect on the past for guidance and look towards the future.”
“Just keep going,” says Lori. “Look for the good in yourself. Say to yourself ‘I deserve this, I count, I’m a miracle and I’m worth saving.’ …Look for the people that are hardy and wholesome and be receptive to letting good people in.”
With a twinkle in her eye, Lori says these days she finds herself opening the doors and windows and telling herself there's sunshine out there,’ or ‘it’s raining but it’s warm rain.’
“I try to use the pros and cons as positively and as simply as I can...I feed the good wolf.”