Homeless in Corner Brook: Not many options for people with nowhere to live

Diane Crocker dcrocker@thewesternstar.com
Published on July 20, 2013
Stephen Urbenz spent four days living on the streets of Corner Brook. He said there is a need in the city for a shelter or hostel for men. — Star photo by Diane Crocker

CORNER BROOK  Jade Mahoney knows that housing options for people who find themselves homeless in the city are very slim.

It’s something the Community Coalition on Housing and Homelessness is trying to address. Mahoney is co-chair of the coalition, a sub-committee of the Community Mental Health Initiative. She’s also interagency co-ordinator of the initiative. She said both the coalition and initiative are seeing a lot of individuals in need of housing in the city.

Three years ago the initiative partnered with the Corner Brook Women’s Centre to hire a housing support worker to assist individuals with complex needs who are in need of housing.

In three years, Mahoney said the housing support worker has provided assistance to a lot of people.

“If we didn’t have the housing support position I think we’d be in a lot worse position,” said Mahoney. “But because we have this position here there’s some help for individuals.”

But looking at the overall picture, Mahoney said “there’s a lot going against someone who’s looking for housing.”

For one, she said, the available options are limited and pointed to the fact the Canada Mortage and Housing Corporation puts the city’s rental market vacancy rate at zero.

Another problem is that the housing options that are available are not affordable. Then there is the fact that some landlords don’t want to rent to someone who is on income support or who may have health issues.

“Unfortunately, individuals that may be in receipt of income support or may be on a very low fixed income are often kind of having to live in areas that are not suitable, like boarding houses where it’s not good for their mental health,” said Mahoney. “It’s not good for someone’s mental health or stability, or their wellness, definitely not,” she said, “but unfortunately that’s where we are in Corner Brook, is that there’s not many places to rent.”

Stephen Urbenz knows all too well how difficult it is to find affordable housing. Last week the 54-year-old Corner Brook man found himself living on the streets after he left the boarding house he was staying in. He ended up there after living in an apartment for 15 years because on an $850 a month disability pension he couldn’t keep up with the rising costs of rent and food.

Urbenz simply described his living accommodations as “not the best place to be,” and said his doctor recommends he live in his own apartment.

“Even if I found the ultimate apartment I could not afford to maintain the apartment and feed myself,” he said.

Urbenz said he knew being on the street was not the best solution, but felt he would be better off.

“I have a little bit of peace of mind on the street.”

He spent his days walking around West Street asking passersby for money and at night would sleep in bank lobbies or near a local law office until police officers would ask him to move on.

“I don’t want to be homeless,” he said. “I don’t want to have to ask people for money. I want to maintain my own quality of life with a decent standard of living.  A decent quality of life.”

During his time on the street Urbenz sought help from every avenue out there. He called local MHA Tom Marshall’s office, made contact with various government departments and the premier’s office and even contacted the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band. However, he found there was no help.

“Everybody is passing the buck,” he said. “I think a lot of the government agencies have no budget, no funding. They offer counselling. They’ll buy you a cup of coffee. They’ll drive you to your appointment, but they have no monies for food and shelter.”

Urbenz said a big problem is that there is no shelter or hostel for men in the city.

Trying

Mahoney said Urbenz is right about the lack of services for men in the city and that is something the organizations she works with is trying to address.

Right now the initiative is partnering with the Humber Community YMCA, the Community Youth Network and West Rock Community Centre to set up an emergency shelter for youth, in particular male youth.

Mahoney said the groups have identified a potential location and are trying to figure out how to staff it and ensure that it would be safe.

“It’s taking some time because we don’t want to rush into something like that. We want to make sure we do it properly.”

Mahoney said it could be another year before that shelter becomes a reality and recognizes it won’t help people like Urbenz.

“We’re trying,” she said. “There are some good things, but we could definitely do more.”

Better days

When Urbenz first approached The Western Star, his plan was to stay on the street until he had the money to get somewhere “decent” to live.

“I have to take it day by day,” he said.

But things have improved for him. After about four days on the street he encountered a man he had known for a few years who offered him a place to stay in Deer Lake.