Look closely — homelessness not so hidden
We’ve all passed them — the houses with the paint peeling, cracks in the foundation, window sills rotting, the whole decrepit pile screaming the word ‘broken.’
And we are condemning of the occupants. We dismiss them contemptuously as poor—a crime in the society of the overprivileged—or as scroungers with their heads too far into the beer bottle to care about themselves, much less their premises. We never realize the occupants of the place, sometimes old-age pensioners, can do no better and government indifference is not the only reason. Sometimes the scroungers on that fixed-income are either housing or supporting an adult child, subsidizing or paying their bills, including the rent on an apartment.
A conversation with the Rev. Dr. Jesse Bown, a leader in the Open Door Ministries, the Carbonear-based faith group that emphasizes the social as well as the pastoral, may cause us to rethink that word ‘hidden.’ The socalled ne’er-do-wells who live in these old dumps are usually the only people who will help the child who just can’t make it on their own. Sometimes that child has an addiction or a mental health issue, while others, according to Bown, are getting an education so they can prepare themselves for a job, some are looking for work but in our weak economy unable to find it, or maybe they are minimum wagers with little or no benefits who simply don’t have the economic independence to house, feed and clothe themselves.
Whatever the reason, if it weren’t for that wonderful, extended family system, which we still enjoy in this province, they would be homeless. But according to Bown, the system, which has long been the linchpin of Newfoundland and Labrador society, is beginning to buckle under the stresses now imposed on it. Joblessness, marital breakdown, addictions, the rougher side of contemporary living have forced grandparents into occupying roles they never expected and for which they are ill-prepared.
Bown says the older folks are now “the care-givers, the financial providers, the supporters of the home” and they are frequently worn out from keeping up their own houses and supporting a grown child and grandchildren, as well.
Unfortunately, the lack of affordable housing in this region dictates they must do so, if they want to keep that son or daughter and her children out of slum-housing, the sort Jesse Bown refers to as “substandard.”
Bown has seen it all and heard first-hand its effects. The places are cold, the cushion floor torn, the walls damp and mildewed. Ventilation is poor and air quality a problem. The gloominess of these dwellings is exacerbated by the sadness and frustration of those forced to live there—people on income support, the families with one breadwinner earning the minimum wage or just slightly above, the indigent senior.
“If people are desperate to find housing, then it’s there but the quality is very, very low,” he explains.
The less rent they pay, the more they have to spend on food and medications. The stories are all heart-rending but what really upsets Bown is the parent who must do without prescription medication because they don’t have the money to buy pills and purchase winter boots or jackets for the children. In their world, the children come first, their own health a poor second. It should not be this way, but it is. Landlords rent these slime-pits with impunity so they continue to exist. Government knows about it but remains silent.
Fortunately, municipalities are taking an interest—at least in the broader area of social housing. Clayton Branton, chair of the Joint Mayors’ Association for Trinity-Bay de Verde said the 11 communities that make up his umbrella group need more housing for those on social benefits. As mayor of Heart’s Delight-Islington, he wants to lobby government to this end and hopes the other towns will join. He plans to place the issue on his agenda for the association’s April 18 meeting.
An email from Lee Everts, a member of the Placentia Area Cape Shore Community Connections said her group has unsuccessfully sought funding to hire a housing officer. Funding agencies want more information on what she describes as “…housing insecurity and homelessness in the Placentia area, Cape Shore and St. Mary’s Bay area.” Community Connections is presently seeking money to hire a researcher who will supply them with that data. Glenn Clarke, chair of the Joint Councils of Conception Bay North could not be reached for comment. Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation provided no input.
There is also the plight of men who sleep in their cars. One, according to Jesse Bown, did so for a week in winter. Because of addictions and/or mental health issues they do not even have the shelter of slum-like accommodations. When discovered, they’re usually billeted at a hotel for a night or so and then transferred to St. John’s where it is hoped they will find the help they need to get their lives back on track. But if we can provide interim transitional housing in this area where they are close to home, family and friends, then we should definitely support it, providing, of course, their family and friends are exercising a positive influence.
Meanwhile, Placentia Mayor Bernard Power said in an emailed statement that “emergency housing services are very much needed,” in his town. I understood from the email that the town council plans to lobby or continue lobbying government for them. Unfortunately, the same can be said for most municipalities across the province.
I have outlined the deplorable conditions under which many of our low-income residents live. Decent housing in this country should not be the privilege of the financially comfortable, but the right of all. It is a statement which apparently our government rejects or to which they pay lip-service alone when there are so many good things they could do.
Refusing to subsidize or pay rent to landlords who collect money, often taxpayer money, for ramshackle dumps would be a start. Prosecuting them in a court of law would be even better. And providing housing that is safe, clean and warm—a place that provides dignity, that a person is proud to call home, would be the best of all. And much cheaper in the long run.
Decent housing in this country should not be the privilege of the financially comfortable, but the right of all.