Elsipogtog facing overcrowding crisis due to housing shortage
Elders, councillors say First Nation is facing a housing crisis as families are packed into small houses
People in Elsipogtog are calling for immediate action on what they say is a worsening housing crisis, as many band members live in crowded and deteriorating homes while they wait for the council to assign them a place to live.
Crystal Levi, 34, is living out of a suitcase at her grandmother's house on the Mi'kmaq First Nation.
Her kids are sleeping on couches in the living room, while she sleeps on a mattress in the unfinished basement.
"It's overwhelming, [we're] just bumping elbows," she said.
"There's so many of us here."
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With Levi, her four children, Levi's grandmother, uncle and nephew, a total of eight people are living in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home.
It's been like that for two months.
Levi applied to the band council for a home months ago.
"I went to meetings at the band hall, wrote letters like they told me to," she said.
"I filed at least 30 applications and I've got nothing, no word."
Little personal space
The working mother does her best to keep her kids occupied and out of the hair of her 79-year-old grandmother and the other adults in the house.
But she said she finds it hard to manage the family's needs, with so little personal space.
Breaking down in tears, she described her difficult situation.
"It's so hard living here, I just feel bad for my 15-year-old daughters. We've been moving around so much but I've been writing letters so long," she said.
"Hopefully I can get a house soon and then I don't know, I want a place to call home."
Housing crisis in community
Levi's grandmother is Elizabeth Levi, a Mi'kmaq elder.
She said she is happy to have her granddaughter and grandchildren in her home, but she misses her television time.
"I usually sit and watch my game shows and my ball game and hockey, but now I just let them," she said.
"When they come home they always lay on the couches with their cellphones and whatever and the little one will be watching cartoons."
Elizabeth Levi raised 13 children in this First Nation and is proud to call it home.
But she said there is no doubt there is a housing crisis.
"Oh my God, yes. If the government builds 500 houses right now, we'll fill them up like that, cause we've been living like this, it's not only me," she said.
"There's no houses available."
While Elizabeth Levi and her family are living under difficult circumstances, they're better than some others on the reserve.
5 kids, no home
Preston Labobe is a fisherman, who first applied to the band for housing in 2007.
At the time he and his wife only had one child, but now have five and still haven't received a home.
Labobe's father-in-law went to live with his girlfriend, so the Labobes could have a roof over their head.
But the seven of them are making do with two bedrooms and one bathroom.
"It takes a toll on my kids the most," he said.
"No personal space, everybody has to be crammed into a bedroom."
Labobe said the house is also in desperate need of repairs.
"There's holes in the wall, the floor is not very good anymore (and) it's pretty cold," he said.
Housing a national problem
Crowded and dilapidated housing is a problem in First Nations across the country.
Substandard living conditions sparked the national Idle No More movement in 2011, when Theresa Spence, Chief of Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario went on a hunger strike, hoping to meet with then-prime minister Stephen Harper to talk about solutions.
This past April, Attawapiskat was in the news again, but this time for a spate of suicide attempts that forced the community to declare a state of emergency.
Many issues for Elsipogtog
Elsipogtog also has its share of social issues.
In April, community elders and the Warrior Chief John Levi, tried to organize roadblocks to search incoming vehicles for drugs.
Signs in the community warn of a rise in the number of hepatitis C infections due to injection drug use.
Two people in their early 20s have committed suicide on the reserve in the past two months.
Elizabeth Levi said she believes those social problems are inextricably linked to the issues of overcrowding and lack of housing.
Band councillor Robert Levi agrees that the lack of housing, along with unemployment, is one of the biggest contributing factors to those ills.
He said too few houses are being built to keep up with Elsipogtog's growing community.
"We have a backlog of about 500 people," he said.
Few new units built
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) works with Elsipogtog and other First Nations across the country, lending money though housing programs.
Jonathan D. Rotondo, senior media relations officer at CMHC, said in an email that Elsipogtog has received money to build a total of six units between 2012 and 2014.
However councillor Robert Levi can only remember four new houses being built in the past five years.
"Because of that you've got more social problems," he said.
Federal money committed
CBC News requested an interview with the Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett to discuss the issues in Elsipogtog.
Although the minister's office acknowledged the request, no other reply was received.
The Liberal government has committed $554.3 million over two years to improve the conditions of First Nations housing across the country.
How much of that funding will land in Elsipogtog is unclear, and internal government documents obtained by the Canadian Press under Access to Information laws earlier this year predict it will cost more than three times that amount, $2 billion, to eliminate mould and chronic overcrowding on reserves in Manitoba alone.
Robert Levi agrees funding for First Nations housing is being talked about more under the current Liberal government, but says more is needed.
"I know in our case it's just the policies they are putting in place, the hurdles we have to jump through just to get those houses … it's crazy," he said.
CBC requested an interview with Elsipogtog chief Aaron Sock but received no reply.