Sour-tasting hotdogs. Pizza Pockets and rotten eggs for breakfast. Locked laundry rooms. Puddles of urine on the floor.
All are among the complaints made to the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation in the last three years from tenants of the province’s for-profit shelter system: a smattering of rooming houses in St. John’s owned and operated by four companies.
The owners of the rooming houses — six of them in total — are paid on a nightly basis to provide tenants with bedding, household items, working appliances and three meals a day.
But documents obtained by CBC News through access to information legislation show clients repeatedly complaining about a lack of food, broken windows and doors, and sanitation, painting a picture of an emergency housing system that leaves the city’s most vulnerable choosing between homelessness and, at its worst, life-threatening danger.
In the emails provided to CBC, one shelter client said they were unable to attend work for three days because they couldn’t access the laundry room to clean their clothes.
In another case, a non-profit worker observed “mice running around” and a smoke detector that seemed “to be broken and in pieces,” and urged N.L. Housing to find the affected client a bed in a non-profit shelter.
Another government worker told N.L. Housing that a client was provided with so little food they had been sleeping as much as possible to avoid hunger pangs — a complaint the worker said she’d heard regularly over the years.
A client who was served “sour” hotdogs for supper told N.L. Housing that they were too afraid to tell the shelter operator about the spoiled food for fear of being kicked out into the street. Others said they were given Pizza Pockets for breakfast, and one person said an egg sandwich they’d been provided was “green.”
The complaints about food and hygiene surface repeatedly in the emails to N.L. Housing from 2019 to the present.
Some of the complaints also conveyed serious safety concerns.
A mother and her baby, staying in one room in January, fled the shelter after feeling unsafe with two male tenants outside their bedroom door. When she returned a few days later, she found the two men in her room, with her belongings still inside.
Another complained of being attacked with a syringe, and an email to N.L. Housing noted police had visited the residence three times in under a week.
Late last year, the alleged threats of violence occurring at these shelters culminated in death.
On Dec. 27, a 42-year-old woman staying at a private shelter on Cookstown Road was allegedly killed by another tenant.
She was found by police inside the shelter, fatally wounded, and died before reaching the hospital.
‘These are preventable deaths’
Another act of violence marred the city’s for-profit housing system in 2019, when a 23-year-old man died outside a private shelter on Bond Street.
He wasn’t a client at the shelter, which has since closed, but locals told CBC at the time they’d witnessed several fights and assaults outside its doors.
That death sparked discussions about creating a set of standards for private shelters, such as the ones in force in Toronto, says Doug Pawson, head of End Homelessness St. John’s — but nothing was ever done.
“These are preventable deaths,” Pawson sighed. “It shouldn’t take a death to lead to the implementation of shelter standards.”
Pawson points to private shelters as a necessary element of the province’s housing system as it stands, a safety net that prevents the most vulnerable from ending up sleeping outside.
But, he says, people using shelters shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves.
“A lot of folks leave a [public] shelter and go to a bedsit, in a dilapidated rooming house that has folks who are maybe not attached to any services,” Pawson said.
“It’s not really good for folks’ quality of life. And I think if we don’t have enough services for people, we’re just going to see this cycle continue.”
Standards en route, minister says
Unlike a public shelter, private rooming houses aren’t staffed or supervised. Nobody’s there regularly checking in.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation, which is responsible for overseeing emergency housing, initially wouldn’t grant CBC News an interview about private shelters, nor provide any written documentation about safety standards for those shelters.
Social Development Minister John Abbott, who oversees the provincial housing system, agreed to a followup interview request last week.
Abbott told CBC News that his department acts on complaints immediately and “[holds] the operator accountable” for substandard food or amenities.
He also addressed the problem of repeated complaints about safety.
“We do need to step up our surveillance, our inspections,” he said.
Abbott says his department is working on a set of standards for shelters. He couldn’t offer a timeline of when those might be implemented, but said the province’s housing system has been met with high demand in recent months.
“There is a growing need for shelters,” Abbott said. “And we’re seeing this fall and winter that the number of people requiring shelters [has] increased significantly from this time last year.”
Affordable housing the answer: NDP
A shelter operator contacted by CBC News described the difficulties of running a rooming house occupied by a rotating door of people often grappling with medical or legal issues.
The operator said clients often steal glassware and bed sheets and break appliances, doors or windows. He suggested his clients end up in for-profit housing as a last resort, when nowhere else can take them in.
But the province’s interim NDP leader wants to eliminate these rooming houses altogether.
Jim Dinn, also the MHA for St. John’s Central, sent a budget request to the Liberal government in January. The party’s top priority is funding more low-income housing and getting rid of unsupervised rooming houses paid for by the province.
“The vulnerable people who are there probably need more support than what the landlords and the owners of these for-profit shelters are charging for,” Dinn said.
Together, the 44 beds available in the for-profit system in St. John’s cost the provincial government $1,026,493 last year.