Home At Last

 A New Lease On Life At Tannery Court

By Mark Leger

Valerie Saunders’ apartment is warm and welcoming. She has a comfortable couch with a flower pattern covering, and a softly lit reading lamp on an end table. There is artwork and pictures of family members on the walls. She feels “grateful and happy” in her new home at Tannery Court in the South End, which opened earlier this year.

Many people take good living conditions—safe, clean, quiet—for granted. Not Valerie, who had just moved from a rooming house in the city centre that was dirty and mice-infested—a place so run down that she didn’t even bother to decorate it with family pictures that remained in boxes. “I’m not depressed anymore,” she says about her recent move. “It’s not just another day in a dump.”

She was so enthusiastic about her new place that she had a potluck with 13 people shortly after she moved in. They were really crammed into to her small living room, but everyone—friends and family, and a few residents from the building—had such a good time they stayed late into the evening. “I wanted to bring them out of their shell and make them feel welcome,” she says, referring to her fellow tenants.

It’s been a long road back to a welcoming place she can call home. She grew up in Rothesay but moved to Ontario as an adult and became an award-winning musician and conservation officer. Between music and work, she was building a stable and happy life. Then things took a turn for the worse when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. She moved home to be near her family, and eventually ended up in the rooming house on Sewell St. There, she felt “trapped,” and didn’t even feel like getting out of bed in the morning.

Tannery Court was built to give hope to people like Valerie. It’s clean, safe, and most of all, affordable. Mental Health Recovery Services has had clients placed there, and so has Salvation Army and ONE LIFE, a transition housing program for homeless youth. Many of the residents have support workers that help them settle into life in their apartments. Its 50 residents pay one-third of their social assistance income for rent. Valerie is on long-term disability.

Tannery has given her a new lease on life, not just a new home. She is hoping to find part-time work. She walks up the hill to the YM-YWCA every day to exercise. A bus comes every Sunday and takes her and some other residents to a service at Main Street Baptist Church. She regularly plays a dice game called 10,000 with her upstairs neighbour. “I tell her, ‘As long as there’s coffee on, I’ll come up,’” she jokes.

Valerie is aware that the Tannery project caused a lot of controversy when it was introduced two years ago. But she wants people to understand they have nothing to be concerned about. “People are terrific here,” she says. “They don’t want to lose the good thing they have here.”

This story originally appeared in the ‘Experiencing Homelessness’, the 2011 report card on homelessness in Saint John. The report card is available here.

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