Inside Newfoundland and Labrador’s private, for-profit homeless shelter system

By Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A homeless woman says she’s been placed back in the very system she was trying to escape when she began living in a tent across the street from Newfoundland and Labrador’s legislature building.

Karen Peddle, 43, said Wednesday that she had left the tent city in front of the government building two days ago after she was promised a clear pathway to stable housing. But she found herself back in the province’s for-profit shelter system, staying in a privately owned home she described as “horrible.”

“It’s dirty, there’s like three buckets of needles under the bathroom sink,” she told reporters outside the house just beyond the downtown core of St. John’s, N.L. “There’s holes in the heaters and there’s holes in the walls, and you knows there’s rats around.”

As media gathered outside the shelter on Wednesday morning, cleaners arrived and went into the building. Two officers with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary arrived and questioned Peddle inside the home. 

Leaving aside Ontario, where the government could not provide clear confirmation, Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province to contract private landlords to provide shelter for its homeless population, typically when shelters run by non-profits are full.

Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in an email that it provides money to the province’s 47 regional municipalities, who can then use it for “rent supplements … homeless shelter operations, community outreach services, and supportive housing.” All other provinces and territories said, when contacted by The Canadian Press, that they do not use for-profit shelters.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government spent more than $5 million on for-profit shelters and hotels for homeless people across the province in the last fiscal year, according to documents obtained through an access to information request and supplied to The Canadian Press last month by the provincial New Democratic Party. That’s roughly the amount it spent that year on shelters run by non-profits, the documents show.

People using the province’s emergency shelter system and who qualify for income support receive an allowance of $125 per month — the lowest such rate in Atlantic Canada. By comparison, Nova Scotia offers at least $380 a month for people in emergency housing, P.E.I. provides $511 a month and New Brunswick pays at least $637 a month.

Peddle said the Newfoundland and Labrador rate was not nearly enough to survive on. Some emergency shelters provide food, but she said that food is often frozen dinners or Pogos. People in the emergency shelter system are often shuffled around to different facilities, and that makes it nearly impossible to find work and supplement the meagre income assistance rate.

“You keep getting shifted around, nothing solid, nothing stable,” she said, adding that moving every few days is disruptive, and employers ask for a steady address.

She had already received word on Wednesday, after just two days at the shelter, that she would be moved later that day, she said.

Stephen Blake, who is in his 50s, also moved from the tent city to the shelter Peddle was staying at. She lived in the top portion of the house, and he lived in the basement apartment. On Wednesday morning, he led reporters through the unit, flicking switches on the stove to show that its burners didn’t work, and pointing to a sealed-off thermostat that prevented residents from raising the temperature in the cold building.

He opened a drawer in the kitchen to reveal nothing but rodent droppings and a naloxone kit, used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The apartment’s carpets and drapes were stained, and its walls were patched with sheets of plywood. Mould bloomed in the bathroom cabinet.

“The place is filthy,” Blake told reporters. He and another man live in the basement apartment, and two other occupants are expected, he said, adding that the doors don’t lock on the bedrooms.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation said the shelter has been inspected. “Expectations have been clearly relayed to the private shelter operator and staff will follow up appropriately,” spokesperson Jenny Bowring wrote in an email Wednesday. “Shelter inspections are conducted quarterly, and we investigate all complaints received.”

The provincial New Democrats shared with the media videos and pictures from the same building, taken on Monday when Peddle and Blake moved in. Some pictures showed the stove was cleaner on Monday than it was on Wednesday, but the NDP’s images also showed rodent droppings in various locations.

A woman who was present at the property and identified herself as the building’s landlord declined to comment.

NDP Leader Jim Dinn said people at the tent city were told by housing officials that they would be given a shelter spot that would allow them to cook and do laundry.

“But the place is not clean, there is no functioning stove … there is no washer and dryer,” he told reporters outside the shelter. “It’s basically the very system that they wanted out of.”

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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