With homelessness surging, N.L. Housing minister says province ‘should have been more prepared’

A week ago, a paper sign taped to the glass of a bus shelter in downtown St. Johns sparked a firestorm for the city’s bus service. It told users that the shelter would be torn down, but offered no further explanation.

The anger stems from the subtext. The bus shelter was steps away from a homeless shelter and was used by rough sleepers or shelter from the elements while they waited for the beds to open at night.

At the insistence of the city council, the minister responsible for residents and housing, the metrobus returned by the end of the day.

The bus shelter outside the Gathering Place canaries in a coal mine, a symptom of the worsening housing crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador, which has seen the number of people sleeping in homeless shelters more than triple since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 Has been. ,

A bus shelter is located a few meters away from the sign that reads "Overnight shelter entrance."
This bus shelter, steps away from the door of an emergency shelter at Gathering Place, was the subject of controversy last week. Ultimately, Metrobus backtracked on its decision to take it down. (Ryan Cook/CBC)

A temporary spike in unemployment. Persistent increase in rental prices. A mental health care system pushed beyond its limits. All of these things and more factored in to the number of people sleeping in the shelters to nearly 300 as of last October.

The minister responsible for housing admits he could have done more to get ahead of the problem.

Documents obtained by CBC News through access-to-information requests show Newfoundland and Labrador Housing stopped doing periodic checks at homeless shelters in September 2020. When they next checked nine months later, in July 2021, the number of people sleeping in shelters had more than doubled.

“There is no doubt that in retrospect, we should have been more prepared,” John Abbott said.

“From talking to my colleagues across the country, I feel we are all in the same boat. I will say that Newfoundland and Labrador has quickly acknowledged its challenges, and we are putting resources into making sure That we don’t do that’ I don’t have tent cities and that’s the kind of thing I certainly don’t want to see in our province.”

‘Where do we go?’

Susan Wall sat in a hotel room on October 10, nervous about where she was going to sleep that night.

In between crying, she used the phone on her nightstand to call people who were about to help. Wall’s house had burned down two days earlier, and emergency funding from the Red Cross was underway that night. There was no one to pay for another night in a hotel, and he had to face the reality of sleeping outside.

I sat with her while she called Newfoundland and Labrador Housing’s emergency shelter line. It rang, and rang, and rang. No one picked up.

“I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do,” he told me. “Where do we go?”

We communicated by text message the next night. I asked where he had spent the night.

“Streets,” he replied. “So cold.”

Wall’s experience mirrors the increased demand on the shelter hotline over the past two years — a problem Abbott says his department is working on improving.

Records obtained through access-to-information requests show that the line was busy for less than 2,500 minutes per month until the ascent began in June 2021. By the last two months of 2022, the line was tied at over 9,000 minutes per month.

“We have made additional staff available to support that line,” Abbott told CBC News last week. “And it’s working. We’ve been able to track those calls and how they’ve been answered.” [to]And if there’s an issue or any accountability around any call, we have that information at our fingertips.”

A man wearing a striped shirt and gray blazer sits at a table with a window overlooking the Confederation Building behind him.
John Abbott — the minister for children, seniors and social development, and also the minister overseeing the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Commission — says the province should have been better prepared for the growing homelessness problem. (Curtis Hicks/CBC)

They said they had also upgraded the phone line, adding that some of the delayed responses were related to technical issues. There are also delays at times because the calling housing officer has to find a solution before calling back, which can take hours, he said.

CBC News tried calling the hotline on a Friday evening in late January – during the peak period – and was answered quickly. Abbott said the increase in staffing allows for quick response 24/7.

Return of Beneficial Shelters

The province funds several non-profit organizations with support to wrap people up in shelters — access to social workers, counselors, health care, and more. overflow.

These for-profit shelters have little supervision and are not obligated to provide any services to clients other than a bed and food.

Since last March, the overflow has been greater than the intake. According to documents obtained through access-to-information requests, 102 people were sleeping in nonprofit shelters during the point-in-time count on March 7, 2022, and 104 were sleeping in private, for-profit shelters.

As the months passed, the gap widened. As of October 12, there were 157 people sleeping in for-profit shelters, and 118 in non-profits, according to the latest numbers available.

NL Housing frequently complains about private shelters – everything from stale food to apprehensions of violence and dilapidated conditions.

Adam Howlett knows first hand. His recent battle with homelessness led him to the shelter late last year.

“It was eye-opening to say the least,” Howlett told a CBC reporter outside the Gathering Place in December. “It was extremely dirty. I don’t know if it was ever cleaned. Like, black mold was growing in the carpets. You know, there was open drug use. Open.”

NL Housing pledged to move away from using private shelters in 2019 after CBC News revealed that the money spent on them had skyrocketed. One landlord alone earned more than $1.1 million that year by paying in-house customers for $350 a night.

Records obtained by CBC News show that the commitment lasted for some time, with at least 12 people sleeping in the private shelter as of September 29, 2020. Since then this number has increased with each investigation.

Abbott said the use of private shelters has not been ideal, but has been important in keeping people off the street.

“Private shelters are filling a need, but we are making sure they provide the right services, are accountable for the services they provide and are only used when…non -Profitable shelters are full,” he said.

where do we go from here?

While Abbott acknowledged the department could have been better prepared for the increase in homelessness, he said the entire provincial government is committed to reducing the problem, particularly in the medium and long term, with the support of community agencies and the federal government. Is.

This means building new non-profit emergency shelters, increasing the capacity of existing shelters, building new supportive housing units, and making more Newfoundland and Labrador Housing apartments available for renters.

An old three-story convent with a cross on the roof, and a sign on the second floor that says The Gathering Place.
The Gathering Place is a non-profit, street-level community center that provides food, health care and other services in downtown St. John’s. (Ryan Cook/CBC)

“We are in as good a position as any other jurisdiction, and in my view we can solve these problems and maybe a little faster than some, because we are able to identify the need and find solutions in real time. united in the endeavour. Abbott said.

He said a number of projects aimed at curbing homelessness are now underway, including an expansion of the Gathering Place, which will see 56 new supportive housing units in an old convent next to the Basilica Cathedral. The province also has a request for proposals for a new 30-bed emergency shelter in the downtown St. John area.

“We know we face a significant challenge,” Abbott said. “It’s not going away.”

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