Sleeping rough in central Labrador is terrible at the best of times (when the worst someone must endure is a horde of bloodsucking insects), but when autumn slides into winter, those unfortunates left outside at night with little or no shelter risk more than a rash of irritating bites. They risk freezing to death.
When Labrador recently turned cold, when puddles skimmed over with ice and snow fell from the sky, someone came to a simple realization: heated homes are certainly difficult to come by, but other helpful things might be easier to find. An appeal was sent out as widely as possible:
“There are a number of people in our community who are homeless, who are sleeping in the woods, in tents and in the old pickup trucks. Last night it was very cold and some people had nothing to protect themselves from the cold. Nunatsiavut Health and Social Development at 14 Corte Real Road is doing an EMERGENCY BLANKET DRIVE.
“We are asking people in the community that if you have an extra quilt or blanket and can spare it to someone who needs it, please drop it off to 14 Corte Real Road. Please ensure the blankets are CLEAN. We will be more than happy to pass it on to someone who needs it.”
One day later, the staff had only received a single donation, but more were expected. However, no matter how many blankets arrived since the first was dropped off, it’s almost certain they will not be enough, although no one can say how many are actually required. Happy Valley-Goose Bay’s homeless have never been counted. No one has the time or resources to do it.
Homeless people are mostly invisible. They either migrate from couch to couch at the charity of friends or family, or they find places to hide, like in the woods around town. The better off can camp in heated canvas tents or borrow cabins. Others have only unheated nylon tents.
As the appeal says, a few even sleep in abandoned vehicles, which may or may not be an improvement over sleeping on the bare ground, which many others are forced to do.
Those who are trying to deal with the problem — not just in Nunatsiavut, but through other agencies — seem reluctant to discuss it broadly, except to say that it’s a very old problem. There’s no question of that.
A detailed study conducted by the Lichen Group for the Happy Valley-Goose Bay Homelessness/Transitional Housing Working Group found in 2007 that there was a severe shortage of affordable housing, especially for single youth (at-risk or otherwise) and increasingly for seniors. The report also identified an urgent need to increase housing available to people with disabilities and to women and children who are trying to escape violence. As well, “People with mental health issues are identified as being especially vulnerable when it comes to homelessness. They often find themselves in boarding houses as places of last resort.”
Even after interviewing dozens of homeless and near-homeless people, the Lichen Group still wasn’t able to say how many there were in total.
“There are no existing studies or estimates of homelessness in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.”
However, the group was able to report that whatever the size of the problem, it could very easily get worse.
In 2007, the nickel mine at Voisey’s Bay was already having the kind of adverse effect that was expected to eventually increase.
“Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the main point of departure for those working at the mine. This has increased the demand for rental housing. Similarly, the anticipated Lower Churchill hydro project is expected to increase employment through its construction phase and create a further demand for housing in the future.”
The Lichen Group’s prediction seems to have come true. When the report was written, $600 was the highest rent demanded in town, but now some landlords charge more than $3,000 per month. However, homelessness workers are not completely devoid of hope. In fact, they are hinting that improvements will soon be announced. But in the meantime, the need for warm blankets persists. So, if you’ve got one, please share it. It could save someone's life.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.