Advocates say homeless people need supports as well as a roof over their heads
Think about homelessness and you might picture people sleeping in alleys or panhandling on the corner.
But the truth is, homelessness is often hidden from the public eye.
You need only consider the people in local shelters, or the multitude who “couch surf” with family and friends to realize just how big the problem has become.
There are plenty of people in this province who are just one paycheque away from eviction.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, there are long waiting lists for affordable housing, and rents are increasing. Apartments costing less than $500 a month have been virtually eliminated from the rental market in recent years.
It’s all contributed to a homelessness problem that’s been an issue in this province for decades and is growing.
In 2010, Kimberly Yetman-Dawson, network director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing and Homelessness Network, drew gasps when she told a gathering at a municipalities conference that nearly 13,000 people were at risk of homelessness in St. John’s alone.
What’s complicated the problem over the years has been the growing number of homeless people with complex needs — addictions and/or other mental health issues — which are often not being addressed due to their inadequate accommodations.
And while improvements have been made in recent years with the development and expansion of shelters and programs, those involved in local organizations say the demand is just not being met.
“We’re in the middle of a severe housing crisis, and I don’t use that word lightly,” NDP MHA and housing critic Gerry Rogers said.
“This is an issue that’s gotten worse and there’s absolutely no relief in sight.”
Solving the problem is not an easy task, but community groups, politicians and advocates have strong opinions as to what they believe should happen.
Ron Fitzpatrick of Turnings said there needs to be more halfway houses, where people can get help while transitioning into the “real world.”
“People who are coping with mental illness and addictions have to have a place like that, where there are trained staff to help them on a daily basis,” he said, “a place where there’s rules and regulations. If not, they’ll end up right back in trouble again.”
Carolyn Reid, a social worker and supervisor at the Wiseman Centre, said it’s essential to have more supportive housing units — permanent homes for people who need help with things like buying groceries and taking medications.
“It’s not transitional housing. It’s supportive housing,” she said.
The Wiseman Centre has 20 emergency shelter beds, but also has nine apartments, which are permanent living units.
“It’s their home and we’ve seen very positive effects,” said Reid, who said the tenants’ rent is covered by Eastern Health and the Department of Advanced Education and Skills. “Unfortunately for others, there’s very little turnover. … There is definitely a need for more in our community.”
Former St. John’s mayor and deputy mayor Shannie Duff has long been an advocate for affordable housing.
She spearheaded the city’s study on affordable housing in 2005 and then served on the mayor’s advisory committee, but she acknowledges there are missing links in the system, especially when it comes to providing sufficient community services to people with special needs.
She suggests specialized homes be built for people with complex needs — something between a hospital and independent living.
“A place for people who need ’round-the-clock supervision,” said Duff, the founding chair of Habitat for Humanity in 1994.
“It should be a public setting that allows for independent living, but complements that with community support. They should have their private units, but have services available to them to help their complex needs.”
Dr. Nazar Ladha, the province’s chief psychiatrist, said all too often people point the finger at the mental health-care system for not “curing” a person with mental illness before releasing them into the community.
“Let me tell you, the mental health system can’t do it alone. To blame the mental (health) system is nonsense,” he said.
He stressed the importance of having government and community groups work together so all the pieces of the puzzle can fit together for the sake of everyone.
“There has to be a connection between government departments — Health, Justice, and Advanced Education and Skills, as well as income support. We have to devise a system that’s one-stop shopping,” he said.
“These people need a broad range of support. It’s no good telling me the patient has to do it themselves. They just can’t do it.”
Kevin O’Brien, minister of Advanced Education and Skills, which is responsible for housing in the province, said the government realizes there are challenges when it comes to the issue of homelessness, especially for people with complex needs. He insists the government is meeting those needs head on.
“We recognize that it’s not just simply finding a place for them to stay. There are other things to consider,” he said.
“Yes, there is a problem. We don’t want anybody slipping through the cracks. And we’re trying to address this.”
O’Brien said the government has invested heavily in Newfoundland and Labrador Housing in recent years by supporting programs for people on low incomes who may be homeless.
For example, he said, the government has more than doubled the rent supplement program and provided $1 million for 139 special rent supplements to organizations like Stella’s Circle and the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Money has also been invested in programs for mental health and addictions, community services and advanced education.
“Right now, it’s more challenging than ever, but that’s why (we) increased funding in the budget,” he said.
O’Brien said his department works closely with other departments to discuss the overall poverty-reduction strategy. He said the government has triggered the formation of an action committee made up of departmental representatives and community partners to seek long-term solutions to the problem.
“We may, for example, have to focus on investment of affordable housing in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, even though one (building) just opened up,” he said, adding the government has hired a consultant to study homelessness in this province, looking at models in other parts of Canada, the United States and Europe.
He expects to see the results of the study within the next month.
But people like Rogers say the government is simply not doing enough. If it was, she said, the majority of calls she receives from constituents wouldn’t be about the lack of affordable housing.
“So, what Newfoundland and Labrador Housing — through its rent supplement program — is giving is supplements to landlords, so they’re providing more accommodations for people with complex needs, but that’s a supplement,” Rogers said.
“The landlord then has the right, which is given to a private landlord, to say yea or nay.”
As a result, she said, more and more people are being turned away from affordable housing.
“One gentleman can have a criminal record from 15 years ago and the landlord can turn him away,” said Rogers, adding the province needs an overall housing policy.
“This is what happens when you have social housing administered and controlled by the private sector.”
Rogers said there is an absolute need to have people housed safely and the government has to take a leadership role.
She suggested the government use land it owns to construct affordable housing or repurpose existing buildings.
“They can say, ‘OK, how can we utilize the assets to help address the housing crisis? How can we use some of our tax benefits to encourage companies to build?’
“There’s so much they could be doing to relieve the pressure on the rental market. … And when you have complex needs and are on income support, you are in such a tough, tough situation. There doesn’t seem to be enough support for them at all, and they end up in boarding houses, which are absolutely horrible.
“The premier said we were in a golden age,” she said. “Really? I don’t think this is what prosperity looks like. “And if government doesn’t address it now, it will come back to bite us in the end.”