One week ago, a paper sign taped to the glass of a bus shelter in downtown St. John’s created a firestorm for the city’s bus service. It told users the shelter would be torn down, but offered no further explanation.

The ire stemmed from the subtext. The bus shelter was steps from a homeless shelter and had been used by people sleeping rough or looking to escape the elements while they waited for a bed to open up at night.

At the urging of city council, residents and the minister responsible for housing, Metrobus backed down by the end of the day.

The bus shelter outside the Gathering Place is a canary in a coal mine, a symptom of a worsening housing crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador, which has seen the number of people sleeping in homeless shelters more than triple since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

A bus shelter sits a few metres away from a sign that says "Overnight shelter entrance."
This bus shelter, steps away from the door to an emergency shelter at the Gathering Place, was the subject of controversy last week. In the end, Metrobus backed down from its decision to take it down. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

A temporary spike in unemployment. A steady climb in rental prices. A mental health-care system pushed beyond its limits. All these things and more factor into a jump that saw nearly 300 people sleeping in shelters by this past October.

The minister responsible for housing acknowledges they could have done more to get ahead of the problem.

Documents obtained by CBC News through access-to-information requests show Newfoundland and Labrador Housing stopped doing point-in-time checks at homeless shelters in September 2020. When they conducted the next check nine months later in July 2021, the number of people sleeping in shelters had more than doubled.

“There’s no doubt that in retrospect, we should have been more prepared,” said John Abbott.

“Right across the country from talking to my colleagues, I think we’re all in the same boat. I would say Newfoundland and Labrador has acknowledged its challenges right up front, and we’re putting resources in place to make sure we don’t have tent cities and those kinds of things that I certainly don’t want to see in our province.”

‘Where do we go?’

Suzanne Wall sat in a hotel room on Oct. 10, panicking about where she was going to sleep that night.

Between crying fits, she used the phone on her nightstand to call the people who were supposed to help. Wall’s house had burned down two days earlier, and the emergency funding from the Red Cross was running out that night. There was nobody to pay for another night in a hotel, and she was faced with the reality of sleeping outside.

I sat with her as she called Newfoundland and Labrador Housing’s emergency shelter line. It rang, and rang, and rang. Nobody picked up.

“I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do,” she told me. “Where do we go?”

We communicated by text message the following night. I asked where she’d spent the night.

“Streets,” she replied. “So cold.”

Wall’s experience reflects a surging demand on the shelter hotline over the past two years — a problem Abbott says his department has been working on improving.

Records obtained through access-to-information requests show the line was busy less than 2,500 minutes per month until it began climbing in June 2021. By the last two months of 2022, the line was tied up more than 9,000 minutes per month.

“We have provided additional staff to support that line,” Abbott told CBC News last week. “And it’s working. We’re able to track those calls and how they’re responded [to], and if there’s any issues or any accountability around any of the calls, we have that information at our fingertips.”

A man wearing a striped shirt and grey blazer sits at a table with the Confederation Building visible in the window behind him.
John Abbott — the minister of children, seniors and social development, and also the minister overseeing the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Commission — says the province should have been better prepared for a growing homelessness problem. (Curtis Hicks/CBC)

He said they’ve also upgraded the phone line itself, saying some of the delayed responses were related to technical issues. He said there are also delays at times because the housing officer who takes the call has to find a solution before calling back, which could take a few hours, he said.

CBC News tried calling the hotline on a Friday evening in late January — during a peak period — and it was answered immediately. Abbott said the increase in staffing allows for quicker responses 24/7.

The return of for-profit shelters

The province funds a number of non-profit organizations to house people in shelters with wraparound supports — access to social workers, counsellors, health care, etc. But when the finite number of shelter beds are full, they turn to the private sector to house the overflow.

These for-profit shelters have less oversight and are not obligated to provide clients with any services other than a bed and meals.

Since last March, the overflow has been greater than the intake. According to documents obtained through access-to-information requests, there were 102 people sleeping in non-profit shelters during a point-in-time count on March 7, 2022, and 104 people sleeping in private, for-profit shelters.

As months ticked by, the gap continued to grow wider. According to the latest numbers available, there were 157 people sleeping in profit-earning shelters on Oct. 12, and 118 people staying in non-profits. 

N.L. Housing often fields complaints about private shelters — everything from rancid food to fears of violence and decrepit conditions.

Adam Hollett knows first-hand. His recent bout with homelessness took him to a shelter late last year.

“It was eye-opening, to say the least,” Hollett told a CBC reporter outside the Gathering Place in December. “It was extremely dirty. I don’t know if it’s ever been clean. Like, there was black mould growing in the carpets. There was, you know, open drug use. Open.”

N.L. Housing had pledged to move away from the use of private shelters in 2019, after CBC News revealed the money spent on them had skyrocketed. One landlord alone made over $1.1 million that year to house clients for as much as $350 a night. 

Records obtained by CBC News show that commitment lasted for a while, with a low of 12 people sleeping in private shelter on Sept. 29, 2020. The number has grown with each check since then.

Abbott said the use of private shelters has not been ideal but has been vital in keeping people off the street.

“The private shelters are meeting a need, but we’re making sure they provide the right services, they’re held accountable for the services they offer and they’re used only when … the non-profit shelters are full,” he said.

Where do we go from here?

While Abbott admitted the department could have been better prepared for the surge in homelessness, he said the entire provincial government is committed to easing the problem, especially in the medium and long term, with the support of community agencies and the federal government.

That means building new non-profit emergency shelters, increasing capacity at existing shelters, building new supportive housing units, and making more Newfoundland and Labrador Housing apartments available for tenants.

An old three-storey convent with a cross on the roof, and a sign on the second floor that says The Gathering Place.
The Gathering Place is a non-profit, street-level community centre that provides meals, health care and other services in downtown St. John’s. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

“We’re in as good a position as any other jurisdiction, and in my view we can resolve and address these problems probably quite a bit faster than some, because we are united in identifying the need and trying to find the solutions in real time,” Abbott said.

There are a number of projects underway now aimed at curbing homelessness, he said, including an expansion to the Gathering Place, which will see 56 new supportive housing units in an old convent next to the Basilica cathedral. The province also has a request for proposals out on a new 30-bed emergency shelter in the downtown St. John’s area.

“We know we have a significant challenge,” Abbott said. “This is not going away.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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