'I've been barred': Mother of 6 struggling to find housing after son set accidental fire

A Winnipeg mother of six is struggling to find a place to live after being evicted from Manitoba Housing over an incident involving her child who set fire to their home last month.  

Joni Gabriel's family was evicted from Manitoba Housing unit in Winnipeg's North End

Joni Gabriel and her six children were evicted from Manitoba Housing in October and now struggle to find affordable housing. (John Einarson/CBC)

A Winnipeg mother of six is struggling to find a place to live after being evicted from Manitoba Housing over an incident involving her child who set fire to their home last month.  

Joni Gabriel's eight-year-old son was playing with a lighter, and accidentally set toilet paper on fire in the bathroom.

Everyone made it out of the home safely, but it led to an eviction notice from Manitoba Housing, for breaching fire safety rules.

"I honestly don't know why he did it, but we've talked to him," said Gabriel.

Since Oct. 7, Gabriel's family — including four boys and two girls ranging in age from three to 16 years old — is staying at Sonrise Village, a family shelter run by the Salvation Army.

Another Manitoba Housing unit is not an option, said Gabriel. She said her applications have been rejected.

"I've been barred," she said.

With social housing not available, and her kids going stir-crazy in the shelter, Gabriel doesn't know where to turn for an affordable place to live. 

While her story is exceptional, it's not unique say advocates, who point to the need for more options for families — especially single mothers.

Son struggling

Gabriel says her son involved in the fire has been under a lot of stress and has issues at school, but he's trying to learn from this mistake.

She said he's seeing a psychologist but has not received any formal diagnosis or treatment plan.

"He's really struggling right now getting into fights, and people not wanting him places because he's acting out," Gabriel said.

"He can't focus for five minutes."

In an email to CBC, a spokesperson for Manitoba Housing said if a tenant is responsible for a fire in a Manitoba Housing property, it can choose to not re-house them.

"The decision on whether another unit is offered depends on a number of factors, including the cause of the fire and the tenant's past history with us.

A past history of causing damage, non-compliance with pest treatments, late or non-payment of rent, or any other behaviours that affect the safety and security of other tenants would be considered," the statement said.  

'I feel degraded'

Gabriel said staying at the family shelter with her six kids in tow has been stressful. 

"There's a lot of rules, like you can't do this you can't do that," she said. "There's a toy room and a TV room there but they don't let kids run in the hallway, so the [kids] pretty much get into trouble a lot, we're always in the room."

Joni Gabriel and her six kids are staying at Salvation Army until they can find a place to live. (Joni Gabriel)

Gabriel said they eat three meals a day but the last meal is served at 4:30 p.m., and said her kids are often left hungry at night.

"I feel degraded" she said. "Recently they started watching me, how much food we take and like, that's not right," she said.

The unit they are staying in has a kitchen and three bedrooms but she said the heat isn't always working properly.

She said two of her kids had to share a bed with her last week, while her boys slept on the floor.

A spokesperson for the Sonrise Village Centre at Salvation Army said the heating issue in Gabriel's room has since been resolved. As for the issues with the kids, the spokesperson adds the shelter does not have child care services, and all kids must be in the care of their parents at all times.

The Salvation Army also said it provides three healthy portioned meals a day, and unlimited fruit for snacks. 

'It kind of reminds me of jail': First Nations Family Advocate

Gabriel's case is not unique says Cora Morgan, First Nations Family Advocate with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

"Housing is a real crisis for a lot of families that we work with," she said. 

Morgan said she's worked with many families who need to be set up at the Salvation Army, but it's usually a temporary basis.

She said the shelter is not set up for families with that many kids. 

"All the doors are locked, and the walls are all painted the same colour, there's little's really tight space, and rule based."

"To me it's institutionalized, a locked down facility, so you know it kind of reminds me of jail."

She said there are many single mothers with kids struggling to find affordable housing in Winnipeg.

"And if there is housing available it's not going to fall within your budget," Morgan said. 

"There needs to be more options."

Kids could be taken by CFS

Gabriel said she has a public health nurse and a social worker that are trying to help her find a place to live, but she hasn't had any luck finding a suitable home.

She said she constantly worries that her kids will be apprehended by Child and Family Services one day.

"My kids live in fear," Gabriel said, adding she has had to respond to calls by CFS in the past. 

Morgan said Gabriel is at risk of having her kids taken into care.

"Absolutely, children are taken if in the view of the child welfare agency is that there isn't enough space," Morgan said.

CFS would want a parent with six children to have at least a four-bedroom home, she said.

"Poverty is a real issue in connection with the child welfare system," Morgan said. "That's one of the biggest challenges with the system is that they will only support families if children are removed, but there's no investments in ensuring families are stabilized."

Morgan said she hears many complaints from families about Manitoba Housing, and she said it's unfortunate that Gabriel was evicted over an accidental fire.

"Children can be unpredictable, accidents do happen." 

Too many barriers for single mothers 

Joni Gabriel and her six children are staying at Salvation Army, a homeless shelter in Winnipeg, after being evicted from Manitoba Housing in October. She is seen here with her eight-year-old son, who struggles with mental health issues. (John Einarson/CBC)

Gabriel has also struggled with alcohol addiction in the past, but she said she is sober now.

She is also dealing with the stress of losing a loved one earlier this year. Her brother Jon Gabriel was stabbed to death on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg on March 16. Winnipeg police said a 22-year-old man has since been arrested and charged in connection with the death.

"I'm still mourning over that," she said, fighting back tears. "But I'm coping, I'm not using like before or drinking, I'm trying to cope with it better now."

Gabriel said she is currently taking a parenting course but said it's still difficult raising her kids alone. 

She recently got banned from the Turtle Island Neighbourhood Centre.

Gabriel said she was told by the city-run facility that her kids are not allowed to attend the centre for the next three months because of misbehaviour.

The City of Winnipeg wouldn't comment on the incident citing privacy laws. 

"I have so much on my plate right now, and it's hard to find a place and some places won't even take you because your family is bigger," said Gabriel.

She said her focus now is to find housing in the private sector, but she said renting a 4-bedroom home costs anywhere from $1400 to 1500 a month, plus utilities and food.

"That's too much," she said.

Gabriel said she will continue searching with the help of the First Nations Family Advocate office.

"I hope to find something by December." 

Family evicted from Manitoba Housing after fire

2 years ago
A Winnipeg mother of six is struggling to find a place to live after being evicted from Manitoba Housing over an incident involving her child who set fire to their home last month. 2:47


Nelly Gonzalez is an award winning reporter/editor at CBC Manitoba based in Winnipeg. She's been working with CBC since 2011 and has 14 years reporting experience in Winnipeg. She began working at CBC as a videographer covering stories in Brandon before relocating to Winnipeg in 2012.