Nfld. & Labrador

Rat bites prove there's a housing crisis in St. John's, says advocate

"It just speaks to the vulnerability that people have to experience in the places where they live," says the executive director of the Gathering Place.

People who sleep on floors and outside are getting bitten, pointing to need for affordable housing

Major construction in downtown St. John's has seemed to result in more rats and more complaints about bites from the small rodents. (CBC)

Staff at the Gathering Place in downtown St. John's say it's "disturbing and sad" that homeless and marginalized people are coming through their doors with rat bites.

"It is horrific, it's not something that I ever thought we would see," says Joanne Thompson, who is the executive director of the street-level outreach organization. 

She says there has been a spike in complaints about rats that seems to correlate to the downtown road construction, in which pavement and pipes are being ripped up. 

And that has a direct impact on people who don't have a permanent home and are sleeping in dirty places.

"Reality is at least half of the guests sleep on the floor, so when you have a change in the rodent population, they are often the ones most at risk because they don't have protections," said Thompson.

The City of St. John's is embarking on a five-year multi-phase project to rehabilitate downtown St. John's underground infrastructure. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

She said she is grateful for the days when the Gathering Place has physicians on site for its various clinics so — at the very least, people can get First Aid and prevent infections.

"[It's good that] we are able to provide the care on site, because often people won't go to emergency [room]," said Thompson. 

Bigger problem

Thompson said as if rat bites weren't bad — and degrading — enough, the issue is part of a bigger problem. 

"What's quite sad — and for us what we find most disturbing — is this is just another obstacle," she said. 

"For us, it's horrific and it just speaks to the vulnerability that people have to experience in the places where they live."

This recent barbecue is one of the events organized by the Gathering Place, an outreach centre in St. John's. The centre also provides first aid and is noticing some clients with rat bites. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Thompson said while the construction projects will be complete, and the apparent influx of rats will abate, there is more work to be done — especially on getting more affordable housing.

"Until we as a community we acknowledge that we have a problem with homelessness at a street level, we are not going to change anything," she said. 

"We can't just fall back on the line that 'It's just a few people, we've actually made progress.' With this population, no, we haven't. We have got to bring our services closer to a street level."

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from the St. John's Morning Show