With demand rising for cheaper housing, some seniors have nowhere to go

·5 min read
Paula Gale/CBC
Paula Gale/CBC

Don never thought he'd end up homeless, but that's what happened to the 58-year-old earlier this year.

The St. John's man — CBC is withholding his surname — said that for most of his adult life he had steady employment and a place to live.

But Don got divorced and had difficulty holding down a job due to mental illness. When Newfoundland and Labrador went into lockdown in March, he had just moved out of his apartment. "I was about to move from a rental property I had, and at the time, with the pandemic," he said. "I really had nowhere to go.… I was never homeless in my life until this year." Don has been living in a shelter for seniors on Prince of Wales Street in St. John's since then.

Paula Gale/CBC
Paula Gale/CBC

It's called Connections for Seniors and it's a shelter for people over the age of 55. Co-founder and executive director Mohamed Abdallah said the eight-bed facility has been full since it opened in early 2018.

Abdallah said he and his co-founder saw a need in the community and went into action.

"I remember we said, 'Let's not complain about it and let's start to do something about it.'"

To date, the organization has helped more than 450 people, and running it has become Abdallah's full time job.

The people who come to the shelter are also given meals and transportation to appointments. Abdallah called it a "wrap-around service" to help people navigate the health-care system and find permanent housing.

For him, helping seniors is also about respect.

"We still need our seniors' experience. We still need their wisdom, we still need to respect our elders," he said.

Demand rising

Older adults, like Don, without proper housing are not alone.

Thousands of seniors in the St. John's area are in need of more affordable, and accessible, housing, says Elizabeth Seigel, director of information and referral services at Seniors NL.

Seigel said in 2019 she got about 500 calls from people who needed a place to live, some of them urgent.

"Quite often it does mean that people are living in 'not great' situations. Sometimes they go into rooming houses. We've heard cases of elder abuse because people are sort of forced into situations that they wouldn't otherwise be in."

Paula Gale/CBC
Paula Gale/CBC

When people get older their housing needs change, said Seigel. Income can change, especially if one loses a spouse. "They can't live in their house anymore because of accessibility, mobility.… It's hard keeping up with snow clearing, that sort of thing," Said Seigel.

After January's massive blizzard, Seigel's office got even more calls.

"We heard from so many people who said, 'I just can't do it anymore,'" she said.

Many new options

There are a number of new facilities being built — and opening up this fall — specifically for seniors, on the Northeast Avalon.

Seigel said that proves the need is rising, but added some of them come at a great cost — probably $3,000 to $4,000 if you include food, she said.

"People have to realize that that's for a certain segment of the population, and the other segment of the population probably doesn't have a place to go."

Paula Gale/CBC
Paula Gale/CBC

Seigel said many of the lower-cost and subsidized options have significant wait times. For example, she said, the 54 independent living cottages at St. Luke's in the west end of St. John's can have wait times of up to 10 years.

Subsidized units from Newfoundland and Labrador Housing can be a one- to two-year wait said Seigel, but seniors don't have that kind of time. "When people decide to move, it's because they need to immediately," she said.

Shelter expansion

Abdallah hopes to help more seniors who need immediate shelter. Connections for Seniors is working with the City of St. John's to provide more supportive housing units in the near future. That's the kind of solution that Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O'Leary is pushing for. She said the city operates more than 450 units in its non-profit housing division.

O'Leary told The St. John's Morning Show that many of those are geared toward seniors, such as the two-bedroom apartments at Riverhead Towers on Hamilton Avenue, 11 units on Campbell Avenue and a newer building on Convent Square.

Paula Gale/CBC
Paula Gale/CBC

She said there is an application process and that wait times vary, but it's longer for the most affordable units.

O'Leary said demand for affordable housing is rising.

"We have a long way to go in terms of serving the needs of people with housing insecurity in the community — and with the pandemic, we are seeing more and more people moving in this direction."

She said the city is working to make land available and hopes to partner with more organizations, and the private sector, to build more affordable homes.

As for Don, he said things are looking brighter.

He said he's close to securing a unit from NL Housing thanks to Abdallah and the staff at Connections for Seniors.

"It looks like I'm on the road to recovery and finding my own place through them helping me," he said. "They don't turn their back on you. I think it's amazing."

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