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Toronto woman’s life transformed after finding permanent housing

After years of living in shelters and other precarious housing, Dawn Hill found permanent refuge and the mental-health support she needed after being chosen to participate in a ground-breaking study based at St. Michael’s Hospital.

Her tiny basement apartment in Toronto’s east end is a haven, a place to finally call home.

Dawn (not her real name) spent her early teenage years in group homes – which, she says, “had no patience” with her behaviour, caused in large part by undiagnosed depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. By 16, she was on her own, working however she could to earn a living.

Her greatest sorrow was losing custody of her son and daughter 15 years ago, due to her mental-health challenges. “That was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “I lost my kids, and I lost my way.”

Recruited while she was staying at a shelter, Dawn, now 45, was chosen in 2011 to participate in At Home/Chez Soi, a large-scale randomized controlled national study to evaluate Housing First, a solution designed to end chronic homelessness among people with mental illness.

Launched and led in Toronto by St. Michael’s Hospital’s Dr. Stephen Hwang, it is one of several initiatives he has spearheaded aimed at improving the health of people who are homeless or vulnerably housed. Director of the hospital’s MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Dr. Hwang is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of homelessness, housing and health.

He joined St. Michael’s 24 years ago, as its first research scientist focused on the social determinants of health. Over the years, he says, the hospital has developed into “an international powerhouse” in the field. “It’s been a remarkable transition,” he says.

Dr. Hwang, who is also St. Michael’s Chair in Homelessness, Housing and Health, explores the intersecting health crises that affect people who lack adequate housing, particularly relevant today as COVID-19 turns a spotlight on the problems of homelessness.

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