Out in the cold: COVID-19 leaves Labrador homeless wandering
A perfect storm is brewing for the homeless in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, advocates fear, one that threatens to leave people alone and wandering during the cold winter days.
The informal network of daytime supports — a drop-in warming room, the library, the once-monthly soup kitchen — has been cut back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's left homeless men and women with few options for basic needs and a growing fear of the cold Labrador winter that's on the way.
"It's really scary. I'm frightened for this year's people," said Amos Semigak.
At 8 a.m. each morning, the town's only emergency shelter closes its doors and sends its clients outside.
They're let back in for what the shelter calls "purpose-driven" visits — to access particular services, drink water or use the washroom. But beyond that, the clients are on the street — and in the woods — until 8 p.m., when they can get back into the shelter.
On weekends, the Housing Hub is completely closed, and there are no staff to answer the door.
Last year, many of those daytime hours could be spent watching TV at the Labrador Friendship Centre's common room, or on the computer in the public library.
While some of those services are slowly resuming, others — like the Labrador Friendship Centre — see no easy return until the pandemic has ended.
The common room at the centre has been transformed into a COVID-19 screening area. It's a necessity, according to executive director Jennifer Hefler-Elson, for them to continue safely operating the medical hostel on site.
"It was a very difficult decision," she said.
"We have to have that space to be able to get people to come here, to stay here, and know that they are protected as well, because the people that are coming here are vulnerable as well."
Anyone who wanted to operate a warm room this winter would need a properly equipped space and properly trained staff — probably more that usual, due to COVID-19, she said. That's a set of conditions that wouldn't just appear overnight.
So instead, many homeless men and women walk along the town's trails, Semigak said, where drinking is a common way to keep warm and pass the time.
The remnants of makeshift camps can be seen throughout town, and they've drawn the ire of the municipal government, which wrote to the provincial government last year to complain about a growing homeless and transient population.
"As a council, we have received complaints of indecent exposure and acts," wrote Mayor Wally Andersen in 2019.
"Many consume alcohol in public at all hours of the day, and it's common to see an individual passed out on the side of the road or along trails within the community."
For the past few months, Semigak has been living in a room in the Labrador Inn, a motel in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, which is being used as overflow space for the town's shelter.
For him, that means he has somewhere to stay during the cold days. And, he says, he's been able to avoid the campsites along the trail where drinking is common — a fact he's proud of.
But he knows what it's like to be there.
Semigak is facing two charges in provincial court, relating to a fire he set in July. Court documents allege he set a fire too close to a forested area within the fire season.
Semigak said he set the fire because he had been drinking and had just fallen into water. It was cold outside and was too late for him to access the homeless shelter.
"I could have perished that night," he said. "What could I do about this? There's nowhere I could go, there's no heat or nothing."
He said he was forced into an impossible situation and fears others in the community will face those same pressures this winter.
"What else is there to do? There's nothing else to do here but [drink]," he said.
"There's no programs or anything for us people to be doing here."
Staff at the Housing Hub shelter in Happy Valley-Goose Bay say they're doing everything they can to accommodate and help the homeless population, but are still struggling with a growing issue.
Krystal Saunders, a co-ordinator and housing liaison worker at the shelter, said it seems like the need exploded earlier this year.
"We definitely had a rough summer in trying to provide … quality support to the clients," she said.
"We didn't want to leave balls hanging in the air, but we were being forced to because we were ran so short-staffed, the volume just blew up overnight."
Its numbers have fallen — as some people move to other rural areas in the winter — but the shelter is still full, stretched beyond its COVID-19 capacity, and filling rooms at the Labrador Inn.
"This should be a temporary place for people to stay when they have no housing, and then they should be moving on," added Michelle Kinney, the deputy minister of health and social development for the Nunatsiavut government.
"At the moment, there's very little moving on."
Kinney and Saunders said even as clients are making progress, there are limited spaces, long wait lists, not enough funding and not enough options for people trying to leave the shelter's care.
It's all adding up to an ongoing cycle: homeless men and women shuffling into the shelter at 8 p.m., and shuffling out at 8 a.m.
"If there's a snowstorm at 8 o'clock in the morning, you feel really guilty about putting them out through the door," Kinney said. "But we don't have the staffing or capacity from this perspective to do any more about it."
"It's a huge issue."
It's an issue Dawn Crocker knows all too well.
Crocker is a bartender at the Sandbar Lounge in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. She was working the night she last saw her friend, Susanna Rich.
"I asked her if she had a place to go. She told me she had a place — she was going to a friend's,"
Rich was at the bar, but not drinking, Crocker said.
"She was just a kind soul. She was a peaceful lady. She just wanted to be somewhere where she felt she could be, and be herself."
That was a Friday night. Police found Rich's body on the trail on the Monday morning.
"It still hurts me yet to think about how she died," she said, fighting back tears. "Cold, and alone, and froze to death in a trail. And she was sober that night. She just had no place to go."
The RCMP say they can't release Rich's cause of death — and the province's chief medical examiner said there were no instances where hypothermia or exposure was formally registered as a cause of death in the town last winter.
But Crocker said she believes the extreme temperatures caused — or at least contributed to — the death of her friend, and others in the community last year. And so do some of the men who stay at the emergency shelter.
"I'm hurt about those people that perished here due to the winter cold," said Semigak. "It wasn't right for those people to pass away. We need a proper shelter, we need the Newfoundland government to listen to us people, because we matter too, we matter as human beings."
"People keep freezing outside and dying," added Tobey Noah, a homeless man in the community.
Noah's welcome to stay at the shelter, but said he doesn't feel comfortable there because of trauma he's felt over the death of his girlfriend and child, and ensuing struggles with alcoholism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has scared him too. In the shelter, he'd have to sleep in a room with three or four other people.
"I usually just get a tarp and blankets. They usually give me blankets here to sleep outside," he said. "I make a little house, and take boughs and put them inside, and sleep in there."
He could stay with family and friends, but he decided to give up his home and move to Happy Valley-Goose Bay to escape some of the demons.
Crocker is terrified at the thought of another person dying alone on the trails and has started a project to help people like Noah.
She's distributing sleeping bags across Labrador, in hopes of getting them to people suffering in the cold, but said the issue needs serious attention.
"It's going so slowly," she said.
"It's like staring into the [barrel] of a gun, knowing it's going to go off, but not knowing when.… We need to put things in place now. It should not be this way. It should never be this way."