Sheltered, a CBC Investigates series, examines the housing crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador — telling the stories of the people living it, while scrutinizing the policies and politics behind it.
A litany of health and safety concerns have been flagged to the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation about for-profit shelters over the last year, but the provincial government is still funnelling millions to private operators to handle the homelessness crisis despite previous pledges to move away from them.
Conditions inside private shelters have been a linchpin issue for a group of homeless protesters sleeping in tents across from the provincial legislature. They’ve complained that the buildings are unclean, unsafe and unacceptable.
CBC News has obtained through access to information dozens of complaints documented at the housing corporation about for-profit private shelters. They range from a lack of food, to violence, uncleanliness and the unwanted solicitation of female clients.
There is no minimum standard for conditions in private accommodations. The provincial government, however, says change is on the horizon and has contracted a company to establish a set of shelter standards.
Though names and addresses are redacted, it’s clear the complaints come from both community partners and clients themselves. Information identifying the shelter operator is also blacked out.
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Last September, a client said she was “continually solicited for sex by another shelter guest and felt incredibly unsafe.”
More than one woman reported being solicited for sex, according to one complaint. Employees with the health authority’s harm reduction staff noted men approached them to solicit sex when outside a particular shelter and that “it appears to be a pattern when females are close to the shelter site.”
The housing corporation received a complaint that same month that “there are allegations that the shelter operator at [redacted] has been engaging in sex acts with clients.”
It noted that “as of yet, these allegations have yet to be substantiated, at least not to [redacted] but by observation and community partners.”
In an emailed statement to CBC regarding that note, the housing corporation said it forwarded the information to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary for investigation.
The RNC, however, could not find a record of a complaint being made by publishing time with the information provided.
‘I could write a book complete with illustrations’
Clients who rely on the for-profit shelter system often fear repercussions of speaking up, according to the complaint ledger.
“I wanted to file a complaint about the living situation [at the shelter] and wondering the last time someone has monitored this place? No working stove or microwave and [redacted] advised he was handed a wooden handle when he entered the home to protect himself,” one complaint said.
“The house is absolutely disgusting. I wouldn’t let my pets sleep there. It’s not fit for any human to inhabit. The house smells of mold, mildew, and urine. Holes in the walls, broken old smelly urine-soaked furniture.”
The unnamed complaint went on to say that if clients complain they become at risk for eviction.
“I cannot with a good conscience sleep at night knowing some other poor soul is her [landlord’s] next target to take advantage of. I could write a book complete with illustrations.”
In another instance, a woman said she was afraid of staying at a shelter and slept in her vehicle because “someone had tried to stab another person,” and “a client is staying there with a gun.”
Staff reported that they overheard the shelter operator tell the woman to give back her keys to the room, and say, “You slept in your car once, you can sleep in it again … Try going to a hotel and getting $50 a week for food.”
In most cases, shelters are paid to provide food, and individuals are only given $62 through income support every two weeks. But there were a myriad of complaints where clients reported being fed Pogo sticks and Hungry-Man dinners, food that goes against their religion, or nothing at all.
Shelters not ‘known for their accommodations’
“A lot of the for-profit operators, they’re not known for their accommodations,” said Doug Pawson, executive director of End Homelessness St. John’s.
“They can be very unsafe. We know some of our staff who’ve tried to access them are unable to go into those locations because of safety concerns.”
During a protest on the steps of Confederation Building Monday, Robert Osmond said the current system aims only to line the pockets of private operators.
“The slums of the slums, you guys pay top dollar for it,” said Osmond, who has been without a place to live for five months.
“It would be cheaper for you guys to put us in a hotel. Shelter residents here now are getting poorer and poorer. The ones who own the shelters are getting dirty, filthy rich.”
In November 2019, following a CBC News story on for-profit shelter operations, then-housing minister Lisa Dempster stressed that 38 per cent fewer people were in private shelter. That switch happened, she said, after the province moved the responsibility for shelters to the housing corporation.
“I believe that means we’re making progress in that area, plus we’re putting a tremendous effort into reducing the overall number of shelter stays for people in this province,” Dempster said in the House of Assembly.
Yet, for-profit shelters — and more recently hotels — are funded almost equally to the levels of non-profit organizations, like the Gathering Place and Salvation Army.
Currently, there is no obligation for private operators to offer anything in terms of support or health care services.
Hotels instead of homes: N.L. spending millions on emergency shelter
Featured VideoQuenton Rumbolt of Corner Brook says he’s been living in a hotel room, without a kitchen or microwave, for four months as he waits for an affordable rental. This is part of Sheltered, a CBC Investigates series, examining the housing crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador — telling the stories of the people living it, while scrutinizing the policies and politics behind it.
Paul Pike, the minister currently responsible for the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation, told CBC Radio’s On The Go Tuesday that there are “lots of services available” at the shelters the protesters have been advocating against.
“These shelters have wraparound services,” said Pike.
“People can go there … there are people there to help them fill out applications to go in [the] Newfoundland and Labrador Housing list. There are people that are there … social workers that are there if they have any special needs and so on.”
That runs counter to the complaints lodged with the housing corporation, which describe a lack of services, support, and basic needs.
“If these people are serious about getting into our housing units, things like that, they can fill out an application, they go on the list,” Pike said.
In a statement from the housing corporation, a spokesperson from the department said inspections are conducted quarterly and when an issue arises or a complaint is received.
“At minimum, a social worker and emergency housing officer would visit the property without notice to inspect/investigate and identify any issues requiring remediation,” the emailed statement said.
During the fiscal year, 2022-23, the housing corporation said it conducted 39 inspections of for-profit shelters. There have been 10 inspections since April 1 of this year.
The NLHC stressed that a complaint does not always mean a violation, but each is reviewed to determine validity and appropriate action.
Private operators often accept clients who would normally be unable to stay at non-profit organizations because of violence, and drug and alcohol use. Various government ministers throughout the years have repeatedly said that there are no other options for some clients.
The housing corporation says it recognizes the problems inside the shelter system, and has hired OrgCode Consulting to help develop a shelter standards framework.
The Ontario-based company, which works with governments, non-profits and other organizations to prevent and reduce homelessness, has conducted focus groups with community agencies, shelter operators, and clients.
Ashley Ben Said, a private and non-profit shelter operator who receives hundreds of thousands of government dollars, is on the steering committee developing the set of standards.
“Those standards [will be] maintained and met, whether you’re a private, non-profit or hotel, so everyone gets the same service,” she said.
“It’s something all of us have been invested in so it gets dealt with and done, sooner rather than later.”
Pawson, who is also on the committee, said work is preliminary but he is optimistic.
“They’re going to create a philosophy for how this should work. So it’s not just about the size of a room or what kind of meal should be provided.”
Pawson said there are a series of standards in place in other provinces, but they’re not applied consistently across Canada. He would like to see an ombudsman so that clients can advocate for themselves without risking eviction.
“The thing that we have to remember is these are folks who are very vulnerable. They’re living in a very stressful situation,” he said. “Imagine not knowing which shelter you may spend the night at and the trauma that may impose on folks.”
A number of complaints focused on concerns surrounding open drug and alcohol use in shelters.
Pawson believes all shelters — both non-profit and for-profit — should be low-barrier to accept all individuals, regardless of their drug and alcohol use and criminal background.
A set of standards and guidelines would balance the needs of those who use and those who do not, Pawson said.
As for the future of for-profit operators, Pawson said: “They shouldn’t be relying on residential homes to be emergency shelter when they could just simply be homes.”