Family’s struggle for clean housing shines spotlight on gaps facing mentally ill tenants

A St. John’s man with mental illness has been removed from his squalid apartment, a move that comes as vindication for him and his family but also shines a spotlight on the increasing challenges between local landlords and tenants with mental illness.

On Sept. 23, Dolores Moore told CBC News her brother’s apartment on Bay Bulls Road needed to be condemned, with its bathroom covered in mould, its toilet and ceiling leaking. There was also a bedbug infestation this summer, she said.

Forty-eight hours later, on Friday afternoon, inspectors showed up at the property and officials from both the City of St. John’s and the provincial government issued an order to vacate, with the city’s order calling the apartment “unfit for habitation” and “an immediate health hazard.”

“I am grateful to the city inspector and the public health official for validating what Bob and I have been saying,” Moore said.

Her brother, Bob Moore, 63, has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and hasn’t worked in 10 years.

Bob was moved into a new, temporary location on Sunday. 

“He was so happy and excited to be out of there,” Dolores Moore said.

“His whole demeanour changed — funny, confident, relaxed.”

The Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation, which cover 75 per cent of Moore’s rent, had approved a transfer three weeks earlier, but said it could be delayed while waiting for available space in his preferred area of the east end of St. John’s.

Changes needed

The challenges of housing people with serious mental illnesses are familiar to some property managers in the city, who say living conditions can deteriorate when small problems don’t get addressed.

“Even something as simple as getting a repair done — if they don’t have the capacity to contact a landlord and ask for that help, it does affect their quality of life,” said Justin Martin, a manager with the Firm Property Management Solutions, a company that operates across the northeast Avalon.

Martin said changes to the system are needed, and that the cases in which vulnerable people have someone advocating on their behalf often means a better landlord-tenant relationship.

“The clients that we do have that have social workers with them, we have a very good rapport and we’re very grateful for them because they’re a conduit between us and the tenant,” he said.

“A point of contact is paramount in maintaining a healthy landlord-tenant relationship with someone with a special circumstance.”

More resources are needed to make sure those who don’t already have a social worker or other form of support get one, he said, and all the stakeholders involved in housing people with mental illnesses — including Eastern Health, the housing corporation and private landlords — need to be able to respond quickly to subpar living conditions.

Increasingly complex needs

The CEO of a St. John’s-based firm that manages hundreds of units agreed a more co-ordinated government response is needed to bring about improvements.

“We need a set of protocols for landlords on how you address an issue that’s affecting not only the person [with] mental health issues, but it’s affecting others in close proximity,” said Charlie Oliver of Martek Morgan Finch.

His company is seeing more property-related incidents involving people with serious mental illnesses, he said.

“We’re having regular involvement with people with mental health issues. It is much more frequent,” he said.  

Along with increasing frequency, Oliver said the circumstances are costly and varied.

“We had a person who destroyed a unit by punching holes in the walls with his fists, with his head. It left the landlord with a $10,000 bill,” he said.

Oliver said property managers can’t enter apartments unless there’s cause, like a leak or a fire.

HIs company is also seeing more incidents involving tenants with dementia, and properly addressing that requires a measured response.

“If you have a senior with Alzheimer’s who’s parading through the building, knocking on doors partially dressed, how do we, with dignity, respond to that?” Oliver said. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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