It began with a building – a 67-suite apartment block on the western edge of Winnipeg’s Exchange District – created to house a wave of boat people and refugees from southeast Asia.
This building, at 95 Ellen Street, has been home to thousands of newcomers from all over the world since it opened its doors in 1991: People with few or no assets, little formal education and modest employment prospects, people with limited or non-existent English-language skills and people with big challenges in adapting to a new culture.
IRCOM House opened with a rush of excitement and high expectations, struggled through years of under-funding, and then underwent a re-birth. In that process, a unique and potent model for assisting newcomers has emerged – one that offers inspiration to a province which has staked its future prosperity on its ability to successfully integrate newcomers into its mosaic.
The IRCOM model is focused on:
- A wholistic approach to assist families, rather than individuals, by offering English classes, life-skills training, and children and youth programs in the community where they live
- Fostering independence, rather dependency
- Connecting people with existing supports rather than duplicating existing services and only creating programming where gaps exist
- Building trust and encouraging community building
- Employing new Canadians who understand the challenges faced by newcomers
- Utilizing volunteers and a highly efficient, low-cost delivery model
To understand how these key elements have created a powerfully effective model, consider how IRCOM has dealt with two key issues faced by its tenants – the threat of gangs and the housing crisis.
Two-thirds of IRCOM House residents are under age 18 and many are targets for gang recruitment – they’ve endured hardship and trauma before coming to Canada; they face steep challenges in adapting to the school system; their families have low incomes; and they and their parents suffer from culture shock. The initial euphoria of coming to Canada often turns into doubt, and even despair, about their chances of succeeding in their new home.
These factors make many of young newcomers ripe for gang recruitment and as newcomer gang activity ramped up in the area surrounding IRCOM House, it was not surprising to find gangs trying to infiltrate the building. But today IRCOM House is a no-go area for gangs and its youth are resisting gang recruitment. The reasons are many: After-school programs offer the kids constructive things to do and role models who inspire them. Volunteers help them with their homework and equip them to face the challenges in school. Adult English-language classes help their parents adapt to their new home and show them new ways to connect with their children. Community workshops help family members adapt to a new culture and acquire skills to prosper in their new home. Community-building activities, such as the balcony gardens, help residents build a community spirit, and encourage them to trust and help one another. Bit by bit, the pieces have fallen into place and a sense that any challenge can be overcome has taken root.
Of course, there is more to the story. For example, having on-site security staff and adequate lighting on the grounds were key in discouraging gang members from hanging around. Building better relationships with police officers has fostered better relations between the police and newcomers. A small grant which paid (and trained) residents to paint public areas was just one of many initiatives which fostered a sense of community and connectedness. The balcony gardens transformed not just the concrete facade of IRCOM House but the people who laboured in them. And you can’t begin to quantify the contribution of the scores of volunteers (60 or more at any given time) whose passion and caring build personal bridges.
This is not to say that every family finds happiness at IRCOM House. Most residents come with heavy loads to bear and a long, hard road in front of them. If just one of your children is failing at school or hanging out with a bad crowd, life is hard. If your parent cannot find work, life is hard. If this permissive new society has left parents estranged from their teenaged child, they wonder if coming to Canada was a wise choice.
But even in those cases, IRCOM House offers advantages not available elsewhere. And, of course, there is the housing equation. The apartments are spacious and well-maintained, and because rent is geared to income, it is much more affordable than any alternative. A departing resident would be lucky to find half the apartment value at twice the price.
And yet, residents are leaving – many before their three-year limit is up. Why? Because IRCOM’s staff and volunteers foster independence. Newly arrived residents are given every assistance staff can provide in the settling-in process. But sometime in that first year – when depends on the circumstances of individual families – there will be a discussion about how there is a three-year maximum residency. This is transitional housing – a place where you can equip yourself to move forward.
Given support and encouragement, people find a way. This is why we are now seeing people leaving soon after their second year, or even before. Some have found the means to move up, but most just move on (even though their children often still come to the after-school program and the parent is still in Newcomer Literacy Initiative classes). IRCOM has given them enough of what they need. They believe they now have the ability to find the rest.
This, ultimately, is the IRCOM story: A first chapter in the stories of many new Canadians.