Living in a van

Barb Sweet
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Man can’t find suitable accessible housing

This van has been home for Peter Locke during his search for accessible housing. — Photo by Barb Sweet/The Telegram

Peter Locke’s home since June has been a burgundy 1980 van with carpet on the ceiling and a small bunk in the back with an unzipped sleeping bag stretched across it.

There’s no bathroom, but Locke still has a catheter from a bladder rupture. Every once in a while he gets a hotel room for a night to get a wash.  But the summer is wearing on and Locke’s search for a wheelchair-accessible apartment has frustrated him and people trying to help. Locke has no idea what he’s going to do if he doesn’t find a place in the next few weeks.

The 52-year-old man was a bricklayer for 30 years, then injured his back about four years ago and six months after that was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.


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As he explained his story, the rail thin man shifted his body frequently to relieve the discomfort on his back from life in the chair.

“Sometimes it gets you down, but you tries to keep going. If you get down too much you won’t get back up,” he said, adding once he gets an apartment he hopes he can get some home support and use the GoBus accessible transit.

Friends — whose home isn’t accessible for him to stay with them, but they help by driving him in his van —  said the biggest issue is finding an accessible apartment in the right price range. Sometimes landlords don’t want to rent to someone in a wheelchair.

“They hang up on ya,” Locke said.


After his marriage breakup, Locke said he couldn’t afford to continue his mortgage in St. John’s, sold his house and moved to Winterton, about an hour and a half away from St. John’s, because he thought it would be cheaper. 

Then this spring, an electrical heater caught fire and his house there was extensively damaged, he said. Locke decided it would be better to move back to St. John’s to be closer to weekly medical appointments. He had insurance which covered the mortgage, but he said he would have to make expensive repairs to the home to live in it again in addition to transportation back and forth to the city for appointments.

But there’s been no luck so far applying to social housing and looking for rentals in the private market in metro.

The NDP has been trying to help him. There is a lead on one apartment this week, but it may not fit his needs.

Locke’s disability income is $1,700 a month.

“One day I was working seven days a week and a couple of days later I couldn’t work at all,” he said of his health issues.

NDP housing critic St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers said it’s rough for people who need accessible units.

“People are looking for months and months and months,” she said. “There are so few units available in social housing. And there doesn’t seem to be a plan to make any more.”

Rogers said without an increase in the rent subsidies — a program to help low-income earners in the private rental market — people have less resources to aid their search.

“It’s a really tough one,” she said. “We’re seeing it across the board, across the province.”

“The number of people on the waiting list for rent subsidies I believe is growing because they are calling our offices. … There’s no relief in sight.”

She blames the Tory government for failing to plan for the aging demographic.

No one was available at Newfoundland and Labrador Housing to comment Monday.


Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Housing

Geographic location: Winterton

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Recent comments

  • linda
    August 26, 2013 - 14:14

    Noticed a house on 26 Anderson ave here in st.john's. There does not appear to be anyone living there and its also wheelchair acces

  • Julia
    August 23, 2013 - 05:18

    Wow, what a strange and sad situation! I can't imagine having to live with such a terrible disease and the added stress of not having a home! It seems that money can't be the issue as this severely disabled man has a higher income than most Newfoundlander's. Can't the insurance money from the house fire fund renovations to a small housing unit to get this man off the street? It is most disturbing to not have family to depend upon. Living in the confines of a living room in a family members home is much more adequate than living in a van. Come on family! Lift the man into your home and give up a little of your comfort while he is searching for accessible housing! Please!

  • Glenda
    August 22, 2013 - 10:45

    Peter, I've known you almost all of my life and you always worked hard and helped out anyone you could, even strangers. You've never been know to look for a handout, but now you need help. I hope you find an apartment soon. There's got to be someone out there somewhere that can help you. Good luck and God Bless my friend!

  • Tim Jamison
    August 22, 2013 - 09:13

    "You better shape up and be more like Tommy... or you'll be like me... and you'll be living... in a van... DOWN BY THE RIVER!" - Chris Farley :)

  • Lynne
    August 20, 2013 - 16:01

    I keep wondering what happened to the old Janeway Apts. They were built to be wheelchair accessible if I remember correctly. I know they didn't seem to have anyone living in them when I was last in that area. That was some time ago so maybe they have been demolished. If not, Maybe they should be renovated to suit wheelchairs and provide another source of housing. Too many people are left with no help in sight.

  • Where is the compassion in our politicians and business personnel for being so covetous?
    August 20, 2013 - 11:16

    This is nothing short of a tragedy in a province that was endowed by nature with a bountiful natural resource base. If the resources had been utilized for the benefit of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians instead of sending them out in the raw state for other places to prosper economically there would be monies in our provincial treasury to look after people like this. Also if the ex politicians and business personnel involved with projects like Muskrat Falls weren't raking in tens of millions of dollars through cost over runs, we wouldn't be as impoverished as we are are and will be for decades to come. Where is the compassion in our politicians and business personnel for being so covetous? It is time to STOP feeding the Muskrat Falls sinkhole and start directing the monies that are going to it into the Newfoundland and Labrador Treasury.

  • Jeff
    August 20, 2013 - 11:09

    I am making less on Old Age Security. Yes, it is difficult to get by, no doubt about that. The cold weather is right around the corner, so I certainly hope that you find suitable accommodations real soon. Why has this been going on for months now and especially with no help from family members?

  • ger
    August 20, 2013 - 11:01

    Don't know what the answer is---so many people looking for housing and not enough to go around. This will always be a problem and concern. However, after saying this, I know the Government can't solve all of these problems, but, maybe they could have looked at all of this before spending billions on Muskrat Falls. I realize this is needed, but I do not believe at any costs. Come on Kathy, Jerome etc.,look after not only this man, but I'm sure there are others like him..Get your priorities straight.

  • Geraldine
    August 20, 2013 - 10:59

    Mr. Locke, maybe if you contacted organizations, such as the Rotary, Legion, Freemasons, etc., someone could possibly help you.

  • Lily
    August 20, 2013 - 10:46

    I cou;dn't agree more Jimmy! He get more than I do working a regular job. He doesn't need a government handout he needs accessible housing. This city needs more apartment buildings, and with an aging population these apartment buildings need to have wheelchair accessible units!

  • Elizabeth
    August 20, 2013 - 10:39

    I think there is more to this situation than is published. However, it is going on way too long. City Hall should be acting more quickly to help Mr. Locke, or the Red Cross, or Salvation Army, etc. What about his family; surely they wouldn't want to see a disabled relative living in such conditions, even if it is Summer time. Good luck and God bless, Mr. Locke.

  • Edgar Woolgar
    August 20, 2013 - 10:04

    Sorry to hear about his situation, but where is his money going? $1700 per month is more than a full time job at minimum wage would pay. My question to Peter Locke is: What are you doing with all of your money?

  • concerned
    August 20, 2013 - 09:56

    So this is what we've come to! Disabled people living in old wrecks! NL is not a good place to be if you're sick, I see a total lack of empathy for people. There is no accountability from this government, ignore, sweep under the rug & forget about them. We can rest assured these same politicians have their own best interests covered. This has to be the most uncaring government we've ever elected, I won't make the same mistake next time.

  • Jimmy Ozborne
    August 20, 2013 - 09:37

    Am I missing something here? $1700 a month income? Sounds like the real issue here is not high rents but accessibility which is really bad. Hope all works out for him.

  • Julian Maytum
    August 20, 2013 - 09:18

    Put this man up in a hotel until they can solve the housing situation. The money this province generates belongs to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and NOT the government. Empathy and common sense are severely lacking with the Dunderdale government. Call your MHA's folks. Let's shame these people into doing the right thing! My heart breaks for you Mr. Locke. You are currently parked in a driveway a few doors down from me and I will do whatever I can to help you even if it's just stopping by to chat. Good luck!

  • John Smith
    August 20, 2013 - 07:43

    She blames the PC government? Really?Rogers wants to increase the subsidies? Really? There's the NDP in a nutshell. Did this guy have medical appointments when he choose to move to Winterton? What they should be doing is getting enough money together to fix his home there....not looking at ways the taxpayer can fund another home for him in st. John's ...

    • Sam Brace
      August 20, 2013 - 19:17

      PC government is a right wing government. Right wingers could care less about people. Their only concern is money and power. Don't expect Cathy to help in any way.

  • Jane
    August 20, 2013 - 07:36

    This is so sad !!

  • rene
    August 20, 2013 - 07:29

    There should be a stop on all the Condo's going up and build homes for low income people. My heart goes out to this man. Good luck with Newfoundland and Labrador Housing in getting an answer or a reply to anything that you send in to them.

    • A
      August 24, 2013 - 01:31

      There's no reason to stop the construction of new condos. The problem is that they're seen as solving the housing issue, when the real issue is not needing more housing options, but needing more AFFORDABLE options (and they ALL need to be wheelchair accessible regardless)

  • hslaw
    August 20, 2013 - 07:03

    And there is no one in housing who cares .I will say that too my dying day NEWFOUNDHOUSING is NOT there to help people .They are there to deflect cost from the government.. And if they do help its bare minunim

  • cathy
    August 20, 2013 - 06:32

    good morning, i feel for this man, i work in the homecare business, and did homecare for a man with ms, in nova scotia for 4 years, and it can be very challenging and frustrating for someone with ms, when there is not suitable places to live, I pray that God give him strength to keep moving forward, as life is a challenge as it is. Hopefully someone who knows of wheelchair accessable apartment that this man can get back to living a life he wants. GOd bless , i will pray for you to find great accommadations. Please help this man!

  • Robert
    August 20, 2013 - 06:24

    Wow this is so sad. This is a person who deserves to be getting help from our government. He should get an accessible housing unit... No questions asked. Housing is often abused by people who don't really need it and hence taking away units from people like Mr. Locke who need it. There should to be better regulation of these units so that those who need them are not forced into these situations. Make more units accessible. Good luck Mr. Locke... I hope the government steps up to the plate and finds you a decent accessible place.