After rent hike left her homeless, Moncton woman finally finds affordable home

·7 min read
Karen Brooker has moved all of her belongings out of a storage unit and into her new apartment. She said she feels safe and happy in her new home: 'It's just a box, but it's my box.'  (Vanessa Blanch/CBC - image credit)
Karen Brooker has moved all of her belongings out of a storage unit and into her new apartment. She said she feels safe and happy in her new home: 'It's just a box, but it's my box.' (Vanessa Blanch/CBC - image credit)

Karen Brooker, 60, hopes she has unpacked, and hung her paintings and photographs for the last time.

After nearly three years of searching for a permanent, affordable place to live, she and her beloved cat, Sassy Girl, moved into a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Moncton on April 1, thanks to a subsidy from N.B. Housing.

Brooker said the lack of housing in the city forced her into homelessness, and she is only now starting to recover from the stress and uncertainty of not having a place to live.

"I feel like I'm home again," she said of her new place. "It's been a long haul, and I'm just so happy that I got my possessions back — they're not valued at a lot, but it's the memories that they hold for me that I cherish."

In New Brunswick, as of June 1, there were 5,766 households on the waiting list for subsidized housing.

Brooker, who suffers from PTSD and COPD, was on that waiting list for 30 months.

She receives $800 per month in social assistance and getting a rent subsidy means she pays 30 per cent of her income in rent, or $234 per month.

While grateful for her new home, Brooker warns that without the introduction of rent controls by government, many more people will find themselves in the same situation she did.

Rent hikes devastating for those already struggling

Brooker first shared her story in January 2019. She had been renting an $800-a-month apartment with a roommate, but they had to move out when the landlord renovated and raised the rent to $1,200 plus utilities.

With no affordable housing available, she put all of her furniture and belongings into a storage unit, sent her cat to live with friends, and was forced to live at Moncton's House of Nazereth homeless shelter.

"That was devastating," she said of her time there. "At the end of it, I was in fear for my life … because there was just way, way too much drugs around. It opened my eyes to the drug problem in Moncton for sure, because a lot of the drugs I seen there I never seen before in my life."

Vanessa Blanch/CBC
Vanessa Blanch/CBC

Brooker doesn't use drugs and said those who did were unpredictable, at times violent and she eventually resorted to couch surfing.

"I've been rattling doors, talking to people, and I can't find affordable housing. And that's all I want is a safe place to live that I can afford," she told CBC News in December 2019.

After she shared her story, the Moncton YWCA offered Brooker a temporary, subsidized apartment. She was able to move in after a generous stranger contacted the YWCA and paid her first month's rent and damage deposit.

She lived there for 14 months during the pandemic. It was comfortable, but she never quite felt at home because she wasn't able to bring her belongings that were in storage to the furnished place, and at first her cat wasn't allowed.

Brooker became depressed and isolated during the pandemic and said eventually an exception was made and Sassy Girl was able to stay with her.

"When you're alone and you're just looking at four walls and you've got no money and you've got nothing to do, you go crazy. And I don't want to go crazy. You know, the world's crazy enough."

MLAs 'should be fighting for us'

Looking back on the past few years, Brooker has ideas she hopes might help the next person in a similar situation.

First of all, she said, government must do whatever it can to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

"It was financially unaffordable housing that put me in this situation," she said, adding that rent controls must be implemented.

"I just find that there's an awful lot of greed with some of these landlords because they're building these new places — they're unaffordable for the poor people."

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

The NB Coalition for Tenants' Rights has been calling for controls on rent increases and is warning the recent surge in rents will spark a massive housing crisis.

It's part of the reason Brooker feels lucky to have landed an apartment in the 61-unit building where she now lives. It officially opened in 2014 and includes 30 affordable apartments. The provincial government provides rent supplements to low-income tenants, and when it was built, the federal government contributed $1.2 million.

New Brunswick and Ottawa have a 10-year, $299.2 million agreement under the national housing strategy, which was signed in 2018. However, most of the funding comes in the later years of the agreement, and in the first three years, only 151 new rental units are expected to be created.

Brooker believes the government is in denial of the number of people experiencing homelessness and predicts that unless rent controls are introduced it will only get worse.

"These MLAs that are supposed to be there for us, they should be fighting for us. They should be trying to help us because it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor — all people should be treated equal."

More case workers needed

Brooker would also like to see more case workers at shelters who are dedicated to helping people who are trying to move on with their lives.

During her time at the House of Nazereth shelter, she said, there was no one there to help navigate the bureaucracy of waiting lists and housing options.

"There's no communication. There's no help."

She spoke to politicians at every level of government, but Brooker always felt she was being dismissed, and no one was taking her seriously.

"Yes, I was in a state of total crying when I talked to a couple of these people. I was emotionally drained — like totally drained, and they couldn't even see that. I don't know what they seen, but they didn't see what I was going through."

Brooker hopes governments will collectively take a step back, and look at their policies from a poor person's perspective.

"They don't understand it. Unless you've lived through it, you just don't get it.

"I was so broken I couldn't turn left or right. Didn't know what to do, or where I was going. But there is a big problem with housing in this city and they're in total denial."

Vanessa Blanch/CBC
Vanessa Blanch/CBC

'We're together and we're safe'

Brooker describes the past few years as "a humbling experience."

She remembers walking past the building where she now lives on her way from the homeless shelter, to a soup kitchen.

"I remember coming down … and looking up at the balconies here and thinking, 'Jeez, it would be nice to have a place like this.' And here I am in this building — so it was almost like I had a premonition of it before I got here."

"I've never had a balcony in my life," she said with a huge smile.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC
Vanessa Blanch/CBC

Since she and Sassy Girl moved into their new place, her health is "100 per cent better," although she worries Sassy Girl is holding a grudge after having to stay with friends while she was homeless.

We're together and we're safe and we're not going to move no more. As far as I'm concerned, I want this place to be my place forever. - Karen Brooker

"My poor cat suffered just as much as I suffered," Brooker said. "She suffered abandonment. Even today if I go out for the night, she gets in my plants because she's mad."

She is able to make ends meet with the help of non-profits like the Humanity Project, where she still goes for supper a couple of times a week.

"It helps," she said. "Money doesn't go very far. I got to buy my cat food every month and her treats, but I would go without for my cat, but I've never had to go without — so I'm pretty blessed.

"We're together and we're safe and we're not going to move no more. As far as I'm concerned I want this place to be my place forever."

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