Strict building codes could shutter home for transient men, founder says

A St. Boniface home for vulnerable men, many of whom are recovering from crystal meth addiction, may have to close this fall after failing to get a building permit to upgrade its fire safety features.

Morberg House at risk of closing Oct. 1, director asks for meeting with city officials

Morberg House on Provencher Boulevard provides beds for 12 men at a time. The home is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

A St. Boniface home for vulnerable men, many of whom are recovering from crystal meth addiction, may have to close this fall after failing to get a building permit to upgrade its fire safety features.

Morberg House on Provencher Boulevard, built in 1905, has operated for two years. It serves homeless men with substance abuse and mental health conditions in an environment that resembles more a clean, organized frat house than a care facility. 

"My gosh, the bureaucracy couldn't make it more difficult for us if they tried," Morberg House founder Marion Willis said on Wednesday.

Morberg House has until Oct. 1 to complete renovations to improve its fire-resistance rating and safety exits. If the upgrades are not completed by the deadline, Willis said the city can evict all 12 tenants who live there. 

In a written statement to CBC, spokesperson David Driedger said the City of Winnipeg acknowledges changes in existing buildings often creates challenges for owners.

"The public service has been working collaboratively with the operators of the facility to ensure that the residents of Morberg House are protected by the appropriate life safety systems, health, environmental, and universal design standards as required under code and which would be applied to any similar change of use permit situation, regardless of a building's age," Driedger wrote.

Fire in January prompts changes

Problems with Morberg House's fire safety systems and emergency exits were flagged earlier this year by Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service employees after a mattress was lit on fire by a client in the midst of a meth psychosis.

Staff were able to extinguish the fire before firefighters arrived on scene and there were no injuries or loss of life. Nevertheless, it prompted several changes at Morberg, including a requirement that clients with meth addiction complete a detox program, and in some cases a treatment program, before they move in. 

Marion Willis is the founder and director of St. Boniface Street Links as well as Morberg House. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Fire officials who inspected the house in January asked Willis to install smoke detectors with 10-year batteries and carbon monoxide detectors. The changes were made immediately, said Willis.

In May, around the time she had to apply to have the property rezoned as a care home on a conditional basis, Willis learned more changes were needed to meet fire safety regulations for care homes.

"It's very challenging to make these old heritage buildings meet today's code," she said.

Many of the upgrades became doable though, after members of Winnipeg's construction industry volunteered labour and materials. Willis planned on a range of work at the house including hardwiring-in the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, adding a a sprinkler system and exit signs, and installing an exterior fire escape for the upper two floors.

Morberg House's plan is to build an exterior fire escape on this wall that would turn the window on the right back into a doorway. The home has yet to receive a building permit for the work. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Brad Mason, president of DMS Industrial Constructors, was the main donor. His company is going to fabricate the fire escape and install it along with sprinklers and fire detectors. He pegs the value of the work at $200,000.

Mason has yet to receive a building permit. He said part of the reason is the scope of the work seems to grow with every passing week. He said Wednesday the city is now asking for "almost an entire rebuild."

"The red tape is frustrating for sure we're hoping to get this behind us and actually get this project built."

'Expectations keep changing'

Winnipeg's care home codes require, among other things, adding drywall to the basement ceiling which would mean moving plumbing as well as installing an air exchange system better suited to modern builds that tend to be more airtight than century-old homes, said Mason. 

Willis could not put an estimate on the value of the additional work required because, she said, the target keeps moving.

"The game keeps changing here all the time. The rules keep changing, the expectations keep changing," Willis said.

Morberg House is staffed all day and all night. All 12 tenants, even those who sleep in the basement, have windows they could open to escape in case of fire. After the "common sense" upgrades are made, like adding sprinklers and the external fire escape, Willis said she is convinced the house would be no less safe than the average group home. 

She wants to meet with city officials to discuss what makes Morberg different than a conventional care home and hopes an in-person meeting could result in a compromise that will make all parties happy.

"We would just like the city to work with us to come up with a more practical option," said Willis.

There is a possibility, Willis said, come Oct. 1 the city may require the removal of only six of the 12 tenants. Even still, without room and board from half her tenants, Willis said Morberg House would not have sufficient revenue to stay open.

Still, she said she will not personally ask any of the clients to leave. 

"I'm not sending people back to live under bridges and on park benches. I'm not doing it. And the city should be thankful that that's the attitude and the approach that I have," Willis said.

The vast majority of Morberg House's nearly 200 clients over the last two years have gone on to find housing after their stay, said Willis. Ontario is looking to replicate the model for a similar home in Kenora, she said.