Looking from the outside, the large brick building on a quiet street in Pictou, N.S., could be anything.
But for the 15 men inside Berma's Place, it's a community and a home.
Berma's Place opened in January 2022 as a pilot project to provide transitional supportive housing for men who are involved, or at risk of involvement, in the criminal justice system. Some have just been released from a remand centre or prison.
Run by the John Howard Society with funding from the provincial departments of Justice, Municipal Affairs and Housing, and Community Services, its goal is to get men out of institutions and into a successful life in the community.
The project began with the intent to do things differently, and so far, it's working.
"The whole approach is ... more human," said Stacey Beals, one of the residents.
"If you're in a halfway house, there's rules and parameters, it's more rigid. I don't see in those other places that they're trying to connect with the human being, you know, what is the cause and effect as to why this person is the way they are?
"How do we remedy it without sanctioning them or making them feel even worse than what they are?"
Beals is referring to what's known as an "anti-oppressive framework", which looks at systems of oppression like colonialism, racism, and classism and tries to dismantle power imbalances.
Leisha Seymour, the executive director of the John Howard Society of Nova Scotia, said this approach takes into account the unique experiences of each individual and tries to give them what they need to heal and thrive.
"We're trying to take a really holistic approach," Seymour said. "Too often as a community we think about folks who are involved in the justice system in a negative light, and we forget that ... almost all of the time, people who cause harm have also been in receipt of significant harms in their life."
Seymour said there are supports available on site 24/7 for the men who live there, including a housing support worker, mental health clinicians, teachers and a probation officer.
Russell Borden adopted this approach when he took on the role of team leader. He also changed its name from the John Howard Society Community Hub, to Berma's Place, named after Berma Marshall, a longtime educator and volunteer in the area.
Borden said programming includes courses on anger management, healthy relationships, substance use and parenting.
But aside from teaching life skills, he wants residents to find their passions and build on them, so he does his best to provide resources for whatever the men are interested in.
"I want to break that cycle for them," Borden said. "I'm doing that by encouraging them, harnessing what they love to do. We have a gentleman here, he's very artistic, he's not formally trained. I noticed that, and we went out, we purchased everything that he needed ... to take his artistic capabilities and apply them to make him feel better about himself."
Berma's Place currently offers a gardening club, book club, walking club, music lessons, art, and equine therapy. A list of residents' interests and wishes includes a telescope and astronomy programming, wood shop lessons and hand-drum making.
Beals said this kind of independence and freedom is pivotal for many men leaving the criminal justice system.
"There's a lot of other things taking place that I feel are integral to somebody trying to better themselves," he said. "Because they're coming out of a situation from being incarcerated and it's sort of a shock, you know, you're free."
Borden said though the home has a 20- to 30-person waiting list, residents can stay until they're ready to leave. He said so far, multiple residents have successfully reintegrated into society.
Seymour said one of the largest gaps Berma's Place fills is providing safe, stable housing in the midst of the province's housing crisis.
"Being homeless [can put someone] much more at risk of participating in a behaviour that could cause a person to become incarcerated," she said. "So it's an intricate and interconnected issue."
Seymour said at any given time in Nova Scotia, there are around 300 people behind held in provincial facilities on remand. This means they haven't yet been found guilty of a criminal offence but are being held in custody.
"It's likely that 80 or more of those people could easily be housed in community if supportive and safe places were available to them."
She said that's how this project started. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the John Howard Society partnered with other organizations to get people out of jails and into hotel rooms.
But Seymour said giving people the opportunity to stay in a home like Berma's Place rather than in remand or in a hotel is cheaper and more likely to end in success.
Beals said he has been in and out of the criminal justice system all his life. He said when people are released, they face many barriers that can cause them to reoffend, and lack of housing is one of the biggest ones.
"It's like trying to walk up a mountain that's full of sand," he said. "There's no traction. So you become disillusioned. You know, you turn inward to negativity. So you're going to go back to what you know if there's no help out there."
He said if Berma's Place had existed sooner, things could have been different for him. But for now, he will use his role as the new peer support worker in the building to help others choose a new path.
12 more beds coming
Seymour believes Berma's Place is the first of its kind in the province, and she doesn't want it to be the last.
She said about 12 more beds will soon be available at a location in Halifax called Tamarack Place. It's expected to open in January.
"I would love to see us in in Sydney, in Truro, perhaps in the Valley, perhaps in Amherst," she said. "It's about really being able to meet people where they are and support people in their home communities if that's what's important to them."
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