Ottawa

'Exceedingly rare' case of trashed rental unit preventable, homeless advocate says

The head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homeless said the situation with an Ottawa landlord and the homeless tenant who signed a lease then trashed the apartment should never have happened if the program was properly supervised.

While homeless advocate says program should work, professor says tenants set up to fail

Landlord Nitin Mehra holds up a bottle of urine left behind in his Vanier duplex after he evicted a tenant who was part of the Housing First program. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

The situation with an Ottawa landlord and the homeless tenant who signed a lease then trashed the apartment should never have happened if the program was properly supervised, according to the head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homeless.

'These kind of incidents are exceedingly, exceedingly rare.' - Tim Richter, President and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

Ottawa landlord Nitin Mehra rented out an apartment in his Vanier duplex to a homeless man through the The Landlord Partnership Program (LPP), a city and Salvation Army initiative, which signs up landlords with vacant units for rent.

Then, the City of Ottawa's Housing First program connects people living on the streets or in shelters with those landlords. From there, the tenant is matched with an outside agency that assigns a case manager to provide support services to the tenant.  

Within seven months, Mehra's unit was filled with garbage and feces and crawling with maggots.

Now facing thousands of dollars in damages, Mehra evicted the tenant, who is homeless again, and says Ottawa's Housing First strategy failed.

Tim Richter, President and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, says these types of cases are 'exceedingly rare.' (CBC News)

'Exceedingly rare' case

But this is not the norm, said Tim Richter, President and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

"These kind of incidents are exceedingly, exceedingly rare," Richter said.

Many clients of Housing First programs have complex needs and many have been homeless for a long time, he said.

"We know that these folks, when they get into an apartment, when they're provided support, and they're helped through their recovery, that they can thrive and be successful and be just like every other Canadian," he said. "In this case there was a breakdown along the way."

In this instance, Richter said it doesn't appear the client was being properly supervised and the city wasn't managing the program appropriately.

"For Housing First to be successful, those supports in housing are essential."

A microwave sits inside the kitchen of a Vanier duplex where a tenant was renting an apartment as part of the city's Housing First program. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Interventions in place to help clients

While Housing First is still relatively new in Canada — programs began in 2008 — there is no national body monitoring its implementation or success.

Instead, Richter said organizations along with municipal or provincial governments are the ones overseeing the various programs and providing supervision.

What happened to the Vanier apartment highlights the importance of making sure caseworkers are well trained, that the city ensures the program is working and that clients and landlords are safe, he said.

If you put [chronically homeless people] very far from the city with no one around...they won't be able to maintain their happiness.- Dahlia Namian, professor in the school of social work at the University of Ottawa

While participation in Housing First isn't mandatory, there are a range of interventions that can be used if a client isn't communicating with a caseworker, he said.

"We can't be laissez-faire about the supports that we provide people in Housing First Programs," Richter said. Some of those supports are home visits and counselling, depending on the specific needs of the client.

Housing First targets wrong population, professor says

But the blame for an apartment being trashed should be on the Housing First model, not caseworkers or even the city, said Dahlia Namian, a professor in the school of social work at the University of Ottawa.

Caseworkers are doing "exceptional work" in "very hard conditions" managing heavy caseloads and vulnerable clients, Namian said.

Housing as a right is a good philosophy, she said, but it often targets the wrong population; the chronically homeless who are often vulnerable but costing the system rather than people like couch surfers who may not be using as many resources.

While the idea of housing the chronically homeless is good, she said the system could ultimately be setting them up to fail, especially if the people have been living in shelters or on the streets for years or even decades.

Once housed, they can feel alone and isolated, especially if it's a distance from their supports, she said.

"[They] have a sense of community that we're not willing to recognize. Even if they're very critical about shelters and the conditions … this is what they've known and they've met people there, formed friendships and so on," she said.

"So, if you put them very far from the city with no one around … they won't be able to maintain their happiness. It's too hard."

With Files from Ashley Burke and Deborah MacAskill