Not home sweet home

Bonnie Belec
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Woman suffering from depression says subsidized apartment making her sick

Joan fears if she doesn’t get a better place to live soon, her dark, damp apartment will be the death of her.

Joan stands in her apartment in St. John’s.

The 63-year-old woman, who is living in the east end of St. John’s in an apartment subsidized by the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp., doesn’t want her real name used for fear of backlash from an abusive, vindictive ex-husband.

“I don’t want to end up dying here,” she told The Telegram during a visit to her apartment this week.

The retired provincial government employee said she was the sole breadwinner of the relationship, and when they divorced several years ago she ended up having to pay him and provide him with spousal support.

After the divorce was finalized, Joan says, she came to the realization she needed financial help.

Diagnosed with depression, and suffering from asthma and sleep apnea, she said she contacted the housing corporation, but was told it wouldn’t subsidize the place where she was living.

“I was on my own. I was perfect where I was. There was no smoking, but they called it a condo and said I had too much room. I was paying $850, but a social worker came in and I was told if I wanted to be subsidized I’d have to move to another place,” she said.

They found her a basement apartment in a building in the east end of the city where she feels confined and claustrophobic, paying the same amount of money and feeling miserable.

According to documentation she provided to The Telegram from her psychiatrist and an allergy specialist, both agree her living accommodations are contributing to her ill health.

The medical letters says she is allergic to pollen, smoke, mould and dust, which prevents her from  opening a window to circulate the air.

“Is suffering from major affective disorder, recurrent unipolar depression. That depression also has a significant degree of anxiety, namely claustrophobia associated with it,” says one letter.

“There are a number of situations in her current living accommodations that makes her illness worse. The ongoing small accommodations create increased anxiety due to the claustrophobia. (She) is having a very difficult time and the current living arrangements significantly impact upon her mental health,” says the letter.

Joan said the place where she is supposed to feel the safest is slowly sucking the life from her.

“I had pains in my chest the other night. I was so bad I was going to go to the hospital. I couldn’t sleep. I was restless, overcome with it all. Then I finally said I’m sick of fighting. It’s pretty hard, I couldn’t even talk, my throat was so closed over. And I was dropping tired from the apnea,” she said.

The smell of smoke is evident when you walk into the building. Her one-bedroom apartment is below ground, with the windows sitting just above ground. The small area is cramped. Her belongings are tucked in corners around each room. The musty smell is the first thing your senses encounter when she opens the door.

The sun is shining through the two living room windows, but the living room remains damp. She said it’s the first time she’s been able to see outdoors since November.

Joan said her windows have been buried in snow all winter, causing her to feel closed in.

It’s not good for someone who suffers from claustrophobia, she said.

The back and forth with the housing corporation has been ongoing for several years. She also has correspondence to and from the one-time minister responsible for housing, Tom Hedderson, who said her matter was being looked into.

Finally, in 2012, the corporation sent her a letter saying she was eligible for a transfer.

“Your request for transfer has been reviewed again on Aug. 10, 2012 and approved by the selection committee. It is now placed on file with other approved requests, and will be actively considered subject to unit availability and demand. You will be immediately contacted by telephone when suitable accommodations become available,” the letter says.

“You should note that this approval does not mean that a suitable unit will be available immediately. Therefore, you should not prepare for a move until we have contacted you and confirmed that another suitable unit is available.”

Since receiving that letter in August 2012, she was notified of one unit, but it wasn’t appropriate, she said.

“It wasn’t fit. It looked like it was falling down and the people were living in squalor,” she said.

She admits she had asked for a smoke-free two-bedroom apartment in the east end, but is willing to modify her request in order to get out of there.

Dennis Kendell, the corporation’s executive director of regional operations, told The Telegram it’s not common to be on a transfer list for that long.

“Normally, we can place people fairly fast,” Kendell said.

But difficulty arises when there are situations in which people have several medical or personal issues or they have requests to live in certain areas or particular buildings. Then it is harder to find the right place for that person, he said.

“Usually, when we give a transfer if there are no issues, we would have a transfer done long before that. It’s when the different issues come up that presents the challenge,” said Kendell, adding the corporation can’t comment on specific cases.

He said the provision of housing is based on need, with victims of violence at the top of the list.

People with medical issues hold a close second, but because the demographics have changed, the corporation often can’t accommodate single people.

“When we have medical documentation, we want to match exactly what the doctor is saying. If someone requires a smoke-free building, we don’t want to put them in a building that allows smoking. So that makes it harder,” he said.

Formerly, the primary demand for housing was from families with two or three children, and the majority of residences owned by the corporation are homes with three or four bedrooms, Kendell said.

As a result of the changing dynamics, he said, the corporation has signed deals with the private sector for one-bedroom apartments.

“We have over a thousand of these now in the city that are meant for single individuals that we don’t have in our portfolio, so we’ve had to develop the rent subsidy program,” said Kendell.

The problem with the rent subsidy program,  he said, is the corporation can’t tell the owners what to do.

Kendell said if the building allows smoking, that is up to the landlord. If there is carpet in the unit, the corporation can’t tell the owner to take it up.

“The problem is we don’t have any control. We can ask, but they don’t have to (comply). They don’t have to provide air exchangers,  so we’re limited in what we can do,” he said.

When Joan first went into the rent subsidy program, she was paying $264 for her apartment. About two years later, it increased to $361.

“I don’t know why. They never said. They just (said) that I had more money than I told them I had. Then I told them I had to pay it out to my ex,” she said.

“But they didn’t care. I’m still paying more for a place that isn’t good for me. They should have left me where I was in the beginning,” Joan said.

Organizations: The Telegram, Newfoundland and Labrador Housing

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Recent comments

  • Shelly
    May 18, 2014 - 16:22

    Why don't you people publish all comments that are respectable, yet the truth???? I am tired of voicing my opinions only to have them not published!!!!

  • Balloney
    May 18, 2014 - 15:46

    Sorry, lots of people have allergies, but that doesn't prevent you from opening the window or getting a HEPA air filter. Lots of people live in basement apartments. You just happen to have the taxpayer paying for part of yours. Why should I have to pay for someone else's relationship mistakes. There's this magic thing you can do to deal with seasonal depression, sleep apnea and weight gain. It's called going outside and exercising. She can shovel or get the bus to a park. Is this really worth reporting?

  • Chantal
    May 18, 2014 - 15:13

    Nice to see some compassion.

  • Observer
    May 18, 2014 - 14:48

    An easy solution is to smoke outside if you do smoke and leave that stinky smell outdoors, not in all your belongings, drapes, clothes, etc. And get a dehumidifier! It will run quietly all day long and will remove all that dampness from the air in the apartment. You have to take responsibility for your own life!

  • Herb Morrison
    May 18, 2014 - 13:45

    Mr./Ms. Redgrave. Your assertion that being afflicted with any form of Mental Illness does not have the potential to place the victim in a life-threatening situation; is both ludicrious and false. I could add heartless and cruel to that same list for good measure. Your attitude toward both mental illness itself and the mentally ill, personifies one of the major reasons why those who currently suffer from some form of Mental Illness and those of us who have beaten Mental illness ;( I battled clinical Depression, off and on for 22 years before victory was mine) are marginalized, stigmatized and are denied the same level of compassion, as is afforded by a large segment of people in society, who would bend over backwards to help a person with a physical ailment, but who believe that the Mentally ill do not deserve the same level of compassion or medical care, because those suffering from Mental Illness, somehow bring it on themselves. Your message that both mental illness and those of us who either have been or are presently afflicted with some form of mental health issue of any type are different from the rest of humanity is false and misleading. Furthermore, in my opinion, your self-serving, egotistical "hey look at me I'm copin" attutude also leaves a lot to be desired.

  • carogers
    May 18, 2014 - 07:29

    What is this woman talking about??? There is nothing dark about that apartment. Most people are paying $1200.00 and must share their accommodations. Now this apartment is not good enough for her and will cause her death??? Really. The Lantern and Street Reach...Wiseman Center...George Street United church...all places where people with REAL problems go. Put on your shoes and walk anywhere downtown you will see others worse off then you my dear. Then walk back to your "unfit" apartment and turn on that TV... your safe you have all your belongings, and your privacy. Not everyone is so lucky. Try living in a rented room. Sharing a bathroom and a kitchen. Your food is stolen and you carry your toilet paper so it is not stolen. If you have anything the rest of the roomers want ...your door is kicked in when you go out...but no one heard anything of course.

  • Stephen  Redgrave
    Stephen Redgrave
    May 17, 2014 - 09:26

    I am amazed reading this article. There are people living in the streets in this city. If you don't believe me, visit a soup kitchen (and there are several in St.John's). You are fortunate to have a roof over your head. The people living in the streets are not just drug addicts or alcoholics; people you normally think of a s homeless. Some of the homeless in this city are people who simply can not afford the rent that landlords are asking for apartments. You should be visit downtown St.John's and then you will know just how well off you are. You have turned down an apartment, some people in this city do not have the good fortune to say no to an apartment. I myself live in an apartment that is about 500 square feet. I live here with my husband and my 13 year old child. I suffer from PTSD, anxiety and a sleeping disorder. Our place is far from ideal, but we have a roof over our heads and we are thankful for that. You should be too.

    • Huh
      May 18, 2014 - 17:34

      So, do you have a husband or wife? Your two published comments are confusing.

  • Stephen  Redgrave
    Stephen Redgrave
    May 17, 2014 - 06:55

    Go to Ontario or Alberta and see if you get the same awesome treatment as is provided by Newfoundland's provincial government--NO WAY!! Worse yet --New Brunswick. Are her medical problems life or death?--NO! depression can happen, and does happen to almost everyone, but we get off our sofa do something about it. No one owes us a living , and our health is our own responsibility. My wife and I, and our daughter live in the dumpiest little place and feel fortunate to have a roof over our heads. The weather will be "the death of us" not Newfoundland housing.

  • Boooo Hooo
    May 17, 2014 - 06:46

    Do people actually fall for these sob stories?