With homelessness on the rise, the NL housing minister says the province should have been better prepared.

Two men sit outside a store in downtown St. John's.  Both have been homeless for several months, sleeping in bus stops, boarding houses and even in the forest.  (Ryan Cooke/CBC - photo credit)

Two men sit outside a store in downtown St. John’s. Both have been homeless for several months, sleeping in bus stops, boarding houses and even in the forest. (Ryan Cooke/CBC – photo credit)

A week ago, a paper sign taped to the glass of a downtown St. John’s bus stop sparked a firestorm for the city’s bus service. It informed users that the shelter would be demolished, but offered no further explanation.

The anger stemmed from the subtext. Just steps from a homeless shelter, the bus shelter was used by people who wanted to sleep outdoors or escape the elements while waiting for a bed to become available at night.

At the end of the day, Metrobus gave in at the urging of the city council, residents and the housing minister.

The bus shelter outside the gathering site is a canary in a coal mine, a symptom of a deepening housing crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador, which has seen the number of people sleeping in homeless shelters more than triple since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 has .

Ryan Cooke/CBC

Ryan Cooke/CBC

A temporary increase in unemployment. A steady increase in rental prices. A mental health care system that goes beyond its limits. All of these things and more led to a surge that saw nearly 300 people asleep in emergency shelters last October.

Animal shelter data at a specific point in time

Documents obtained by CBC News through requests for information show that the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Commission conducted a spot search at homeless shelters in September 2020 and found 71 people sleeping in shelters.

A point-in-time review conducted nine months later in July 2021 shows the number of people sleeping in emergency shelters more than doubled to 157. The number had reached 280 last weekend, according to John Abbott, the Minister for Housing.

“In hindsight, there’s no doubt we should have been better prepared,” Abbott said.

“From talking to my colleagues across the country, I think we’re all in the same boat. I would say Newfoundland and Labrador recognized its challenges from the start and we are committing resources to ensure we don’t. There are no tent cities and things like that, which I definitely don’t want to see in our province.”

‘Where do we go?’

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

In between fits of crying, she used the phone on her bedside table to call the people who were supposed to help. Wall’s house had burned down two days earlier, and Red Cross emergency relief was running out that night. There was no one to pay for another night in a hotel and she was faced with the reality of sleeping outside.

I was sitting with her when she called Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Emergency Shelter. It rang and rang and rang. Nobody picked up.

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

We communicated via text message the following night. I asked where she had spent the night.

“Streets,” she replied. “So cold.”

Wall’s experience reflects an increase in demand at the shelter’s hotline over the past two years — an issue Abbott says his department has been working to improve.

Records obtained through requests for access to information show the line was consuming less than 2,500 minutes per month until it began increasing in June 2021. In the last two months of 2022, the line was busy for more than 9,000 minutes per month.

Use of the NLHC emergency shelter hotline

“We have provided additional staff to support this line,” Abbott told CBC News last week. “And it works. We can track these calls and how they are answered [to]and if there are any issues or responsibilities related to any of the calls, we have that information on hand.”

Curtis Hicks/CBC

Curtis Hicks/CBC

He said they also upgraded the phone line themselves, explaining that some of the late replies are related to technical issues. He said there are also sometimes delays because the housing officer who takes the call has to find a solution before calling back, which can take a few hours, he said.

CBC News tried calling the hotline on a Friday night in late January — during a peak hour — and got an immediate response. Abbott said the increase in staff will allow for a faster, 24-hour response.

The return of for-profit housing

The province funds a number of non-profit organizations to place people in shelters with full support – access to social workers, counselors, health care, etc. But when the limited number of shelters fills up, they turn to the private sector to find housing the overflow.

These for-profit lodgings have less oversight and are under no obligation to provide services to customers other than a bed and meals.

Since last March, the overflow has been greater than the inflow. According to documents obtained through requests for information, on March 7, 2022, 102 people slept in non-profit shelters and 104 people in private for-profit shelters.

As the months passed, the gap widened. According to the latest figures available, as of Oct. 12, 157 people were sleeping in for-profit shelters and 118 people in charities.

Profit vs. non-profit shelter usage

NL Housing often files complaints about private housing – from rancid food to fears of violence and run-down conditions.

Adam Hollett knows firsthand. His recent struggle with homelessness landed him in an animal shelter late last year.

“It was eye-opening, to say the least,” Hollett told a CBC reporter outside the gathering site in December. “It was extremely dirty. I don’t know if it was ever clean. For example, black mold was growing in the carpets. There was, you know, overt drug use. Open.”

NL Housing pledged to stop using private housing in 2019 after CBC News revealed funds spent on it had skyrocketed. One landlord alone made over $1.1 million that year to accommodate clients for up to $350 a night.

Records obtained by CBC News show the engagement lasted for a while, with just 12 people sleeping in private accommodation as of September 29, 2020. The number has increased with each review since then.

Abbott said the use of private shelters isn’t ideal but is crucial to keeping people off the streets.

“The private shelters fill a need, but we make sure they’re providing the right services, that they’re held accountable for the services they provide, and that they’re only used when … the non-profit shelters are full,” he said .

What do we do now?

While Abbott admitted the department could have been better prepared for the rise in homelessness, he said the entire provincial government is committed to solving the problem, particularly in the medium and long term, with support from local authorities and the federal government.

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

Ryan Cooke/CBC

Ryan Cooke/CBC

“We’re in as good a position as any other jurisdiction, and I think we can probably solve and address these issues a little quicker than some because we’re united in recognizing the need and trying to deliver the solutions in real time.” find,” Abbott said.

There are currently a number of projects aimed at curbing homelessness, he said, including a gathering space expansion that will provide 56 new supportive housing units in an old monastery next to the Basilica Cathedral. The province has also issued a call for proposals for a new 30-bed emergency shelter in downtown St. John’s.

“We know we face a huge challenge,” Abbott said. “It won’t go away.”

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