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Housing Hell: Our most vulnerable living in deplorable conditions

AKS

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Some of the crime sounds disturbing regarding TCHC housing...

Anyhow regarding the George Hallam case example, I wonder if those with mental issues should be hospitalized or placed in special care institutions. They don't really need an apartment to live in. They need people to take care of them. I would believe the TCHC's excuse saying they cleaned it up but half a year later it's a mess again. I've seen brand new condo units that after a year of rental looks deplorable and seems like they're 5 years old or more. Also, if they don't clean after themselves, it attracts insects into the building and those insects will spread all over the condo ruining it for other renters or even owners if they buy into TCHC buildings.

I watched a japanese drama "ninkyo helpers" about help centres to take care of the elderly. That's what they need here. Because maybe their family don't have the ability or sanity to take care of them. Sometimes family members may go crazy due to the stress of taking care of their elderly parents, hence they need help from special institutions to care for them.

In the example of George Hallam, throwing him into a TCHC building is not a solution.

http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20090416/wfive_housing_090418/20090418?hub=WFive

George Hallam lived and died alone in a one bedroom apartment in a building owned by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, otherwise known as TCHC. Hallam suffered from serious mental health issues and, unable to take care of himself, he was basically left to rot in a pile of human filth in an apartment infested with cockroaches and bed bugs. When Hallam died in January, 2009, his body lay, undiscovered for days.

Weeks later, Hallam's close friend, Annie, took W-FIVE's Victor Malarek into the apartment to show us the deplorable conditions where he lived and died.

"You don't see it because there's not enough people that really care and want to show you anything," said Annie, complaining that tenants of Toronto Community Housing, like Hallam are ignored and forgotten. She charges that TCHC hides the truth of how people are living.

"Please God, forgive me, but they don't care. (Toronto Community) Housing does not care," she said.

TCHC estimates that as many as 10 per cent of the 164,000 tenants living in its buildings suffer from mental health problems like Hallam. There is also a large population of elderly and physically disabled people who must fend for themselves.

As TCHC is required to conduct annual inspections of all its apartments, inspectors should have known just how dire Hallam's situation was - but it appears no red flags were raised.

Pointing out the cobwebs, the holes in the walls and floors that were rotting under her feet, Annie wonders, "How in God's name do you not notice this?"

It's an all too familiar situation for Toronto lawyer Sarah Shartal. She's been helping TCHC tenants with disabilities and mental health issues for years.

"They present themselves as if they are an ordinary landlord and they're not," said Shartal. "The problem in public housing is that we have stripped social housing of its social component."

Long-term neglect

The man in charge of Toronto Community Housing, CEO Derek Ballantyne, agreed to an interview with W-FIVE. Questioned about the death of George Hallam and the condition of his apartment, Ballantyne claimed TCHC had intervened -- six months prior to the tenant's death they had made repairs to his apartment to bring it back to a pristine condition.

But when W-FIVE visited Hallam's former apartment there was no evidence of recent repairs. There were signs of long-term neglect everywhere -- torn up floors, peeling paint, rotten kitchen cupboards and mould. The fridge, which was apparently new, stood out like a beacon in the crumbling surroundings.

Ballantyne conceded that the apartment was no longer pristine and, apparently blaming TCHC's tenants for some of the disrepair, insisted: "That's the kind of degradation you get in an apartment like that in less than six months after they've been brought back to a good standard."

While Toronto Community Housing is landlord to some of Toronto's most impoverished and needy citizens, Ballantyne claims it is unreasonable to expect TCHC to do the work of Public Health authorities and social workers, hospitals or family members.

According to Ballantyne, TCHC's role is only to "put resources at their disposal to make sure they have access to those services" -- assuming they ask for help.

"If they self-identify, (and) a large number of people self-identify, we will make sure they are connected," said Ballantyne.

But what happens to those without the mental capacity to "self-identify"? Does TCHC have the moral responsibility to look after the health and safety of all its tenants?

Cash-strapped

Shartal argues that the taxpayer-owned landlord does. She claims that it is not hard to identify which clients they should be helping.

"It's not that they can't do it; it's that they don't do it," said Shartal, who believes the cash-strapped public company is failing to do its job. "They actually get special money for what are called special needs clients but they don't provide the service."

Documents obtained by W-FIVE indicate that as early as 2003, TCHC was aware of the problem. Minutes from board meetings in 2007 show that Toronto Community Housing budgeted $200,000 to develop a mental health framework for tenants. Two years later it has yet to be implemented.

Pest problems

At 200 Wellesley Street, the apartment where George Hallam lived and died, TCHC has spent over $9-million on improvements to the building. But for other tenants, like John Ploeg, that money doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. Ploeg tries to keep his apartment clean, but is still over run with bed bugs. His arms and legs have been bitten extensively and he's even had to go to the doctor to have a bug removed from his ear.

Cockroaches were a problem for Stan Brodzinski, a legally-blind tenant who lives on a meager disability pension. W-FIVE featured his plight in its first investigation of conditions at TCHC apartments, broadcast in 2008. Cockroaches and bugs ran free around the apartment, crawling out of cupboards and over countertops.

Within days of the broadcast of W-FIVE's program, staff from Toronto Housing paid Brodzinski a visit. They ordered him to clean his apartment so that they could spray it to kill the pests. After spraying, TCHC also replaced his bathroom and caulked around some of the places where the cockroaches were entering his apartment. Brodzinski was ordered to throw out his furniture and to keep it clean -- and charged $300 by TCHC for the clean-up -- money he can ill afford.

During a return visit from W-FIVE a year later, Brodzinski reported that while the "critters" -- as he calls the insects -- were fewer, they were beginning to reappear from places that hadn't been sealed properly, like electrical outlets and light switches which are natural entry points for the pests.

W-FIVE had also reported on the state of Connie Harrison's TCHC apartment - and found it infested with bed bugs and cockroaches. On a return visit, Harrison said that TCHC has sprayed and replaced the cupboards in her kitchen. But she, too, is finding that the bugs are "starting to trickle back in because there's other unsealed spots."

When W-FIVE asked TCHC CEO Ballantyne about the problems of cockroaches, mice and bed bugs, he acknowledged there were still issues but insisted that things are getting better.

"We do feel proud that we have really in a sense, been able to break the back of the biggest part of the problem."

During the past year, Toronto Community Housing has received money from both the City of Toronto, which owns the Corporation, the Ontario provincial government, and has been promised money from the federal government, but it's a drop in the bucket when compared to the estimated $200-million just to bring TCHC buildings up to standard.

Those buildings dot the Toronto skyline -- $6-billion worth of real estate, which consists of high-rises, townhouses and even single-family homes. A survey of TCHC properties by W-FIVE found many easily visible problems: gaping holes, exposed wiring, ceilings that are collapsing, black mould and furniture and trash that continue to pile up. Some of the buildings are in such a state of disrepair that TCHC has admitted it no longer makes financial sense to keep repairing them. It is trying to sell three of the multi-story apartment buildings and 45 houses.
 

AKS

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cont'd

Crime plague

As if decrepit conditions weren't enough, TCHC tenants have something even more dangerous to worry about: crime. Internal security documents obtained by W-FIVE paint a frightening picture of what has gone on in Toronto Community Housing buildings during the last three years: 39 murders and 88 attempted murders. If TCHC's properties were a city, it would have the highest murder rate, per capita, in all of Canada.

An example: in March 2008, surveillance cameras at a TCHC-owned townhouse complex in Toronto's Lawrence Heights neighbourhood captured gang members shooting repeatedly into the building. The gunfire that left five men wounded and one dead.

Earlier this year cameras captured another brazen shooting. This time in the middle of the day gunmen opened what should have been a secure door and fired randomly into the building. One man was wounded.

It's not only gangs and guns. The internal security documents also revealed that, during the same three year period, there were 543 assaults, 63 sexual assaults and 80 armed robberies reported on TCHC property.

Asked about the crime wave in his buildings, CEO Derek Ballantyne responded: "Our ability is not to make crime disappear. That is a Toronto Police responsibility. We ensure proper building security systems are in place, camera systems are in place."

But a visit to one building in the wake of the most recent shooting showed that Ballantyne's optimism might be overstated. A resident, fearful of reprisals, and asking that his name not be used, took W-FIVE on a tour of his building and pointed out security lapses that have left him afraid in his own home.

The father of young children showed off a keyless entry system at the front door that he claims has not worked properly in the over two years since it was installed. As he showed W-FIVE reporter Victor Malarek, the door is not locked and can be pulled open. A closer inspection revealed that the lock was missing entirely.

The tenant also pointed to where the security camera should have been located. The wires were still there, but there was no camera.

More shocking were the bullet holes. Five months after the shooting incident the walls are still pock-marked -- a daily reminder of just how dangerous living in social housing can be.

When W-FIVE asked Ballantyne about those security lapses, he asked for the location and admitted that "in our own protocols, any sort of building lock, any sort of building entry mechanism is tested and should be in good working order," and that "we repair it within a very strict time line."

But, as pointed out by the fearful tenant, the lock on the door of his apartment building has not worked for more than two years. "It's not something I'm bringing to your attention that happened yesterday," he said.

According to Toronto lawyer Sarah Shatal, security failures are yet another example of Toronto Community Housing failing to meet the basic needs of tenants.

"These buildings are owned by the City. They absolutely know what's going on. They absolutely do nothing," she charged. "They're scary buildings. They're terrifying buildings."
 

dt_toronto_geek

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As I see it, the problem with this poor fellow was that he was disconnected from services that are available to assist him with day to day living. TCHC (nor any market rental landlord, condo board or property manager) should not be responsible for private lives of it's residents. Social service agencies are available to help assist those who are capable of living on their own and if there are not enough social workers to make the rounds then this is where the issue needs to be addressed. The alternative option of locking George up in an institution would not have been a solution in this day in age. Some severely mentally ill people who do not respond to treatments or who present a harm to themselves or others do need to be institutionalized. Alternatively, as advances in treating mental illness have moved forward in the past 20 or 30 years shouldn't these folks have the opportunity of trying to live as full a life as possible, to contribute and be a part of the community that they live in with some assistance if they are able?
 

AKS

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By institution, I don't mean by tying or locking them up. But like a hospital of sorts where they occupy a room a long with other people in the building. And there would be social workers to check up on them. Also food would be served and they would be able to hang out with others in social gathering rather than locking themselves in a room and isolating themselves. Kind of like a seniors home.

Having people with mental illness living on their own is asking for trouble. They might not feed themselves properly or clean up which creates a bad environment for them to live in. No one would notice even if they died cuz no one checks in on them.
 

dt_toronto_geek

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By institution, I don't mean by tying or locking them up. But like a hospital of sorts where they occupy a room a long with other people in the building. And there would be social workers to check up on them. Also food would be served and they would be able to hang out with others in social gathering rather than locking themselves in a room and isolating themselves. Kind of like a seniors home.

Having people with mental illness living on their own is asking for trouble. They might not feed themselves properly or clean up which creates a bad environment for them to live in. No one would notice even if they died cuz no one checks in on them.
Aren't you suggesting a step back in time by hospitalizing people who might otherwise do well and live a better quality of life in the community? We've discussed elsewhere on this forum about ghettoizing marginalized or minority communities, would this not be similar? I don't have the answers here, I'm merely posing the questions.

I have a friend who developed schizophrenia later in life. She's never been a harm to herself or to others and she's now quite able to live on her own after she came out of 2-year live-in program at a facility that taught life skills. There she gained confidence in learning how to socialize again with others, learned proper diet, how to shop for and cook healthy meals, budget her income and pay her bills, the importance of exercise, personal hygiene, house cleaning and the like. Her condo (which her family bought for her) is cleaner and more organized than my place, and I'm a clean freak! Sadly however she has periods where she does have to be hospitalized when she gets ill which unfortunately is happening with increasing frequency as she gets older but aside from those episodes, she lives a very happy, productive life and cares for herself very well. A Coda-worker (I think that's what she's called) which is some form of social worker checks in on her weekly and spends a couple of hours with her in her home.

That's my one experience with someone with a fairly severe mental illness, and a success story at that. Thanks to a family (and friends) who care and promote her independence she's one of the lucky ones who didn't fall through the cracks such as poor George, and without a doubt thousands of other similar type of folk in our city.
 

Therion

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It's all about funding. Affordable housing and help for mental health issues is not exactly high on Queen's Park's agenda, let alone the federal Tories. It's interesting to note that 38 murders is about half of Toronto's total for last year. Crazy.
 

TrickyRicky

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Therion, I have experienced dealing with people with mental health issues and housing on a few occasions and I would have to say that while funding is important, it is not all about funding. We could say that the system is broken, however I'm not exactly sure there is any system to be broken in the first place. Basically everything is ad hoc and case-by-case and there is no real smooth connection between people, groups, health services and social services. Unfortunately, I found that without strong family support (and for whatever reason family are often unable or incapable or unwilling to help) the system can't really help people. Too often the only blunt stick available as mediator is the criminal justice system which is totally inappropriate.
 

Monaco

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I agree, in my experience, people with strong family support do much, much better. Without family support, a lot of times things just spiral out-of-control. Social assistance is helpful, but oftentimes cannot match family support (not talking just about housing, finances).
 

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