Look closely — home­less­ness not so hid­den

The Compass - - Editorial - Pat Cullen

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.

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