Ray really doesn’t want to return to the small space under a bridge he used to call home.
Now 62 and arthritic, the bearded man quietly yet frankly walks through a past most would rather not reveal as their own: drowning under bills, garnished wages, homelessness, drug use to escape, dealing to maintain a supply and disinterest in life in general.
“Four or five years ago I didn’t give a rip about anything. I was too high on crack cocaine. I dunno; I gave up, I guess,” he says, hands folded in his lap.
He roamed from town to town for years. But the wayfaring life of “a real bad addict” caught up to him, and Ray decided to go clean last year — giving up drug use and dealing. He scraped by on social assistance until motels in town went to summer rates a few months ago. That’s when he first walked in the door of Winnipeg Manor.
“I feel safe here. I feel secure here. I like my rooming neighbours. We all respect each other,” Ray said, adding his health is improving and he’s connecting to services in town. “I need this place. I like this place. I can’t see what’s wrong with it.”
Penticton council voted Monday to place a notice on title at 597 Winnipeg St. and suspend the rooming house’s business licence, citing health and safety code violations found during inspections initiated from a complaint about construction without permits.
But Winnipeg Manor residents are speaking out, saying the city is being too heavy-handed and risks unsettling the balance low-income individuals have struck in an attempt to find affordable housing.
“If this place isn’t here, then it’s going to cost taxpayers nothing but money,” says Al, another resident who also does tile work around the house. “Any house, if you went in and inspected, you would find something.”
A man introduces himself as “Little Mikey,” and explains he landed in Penticton last month from Vancouver in search of work. “If the town shuts this place down, they’re going to have people sleeping in bushes again,” he says.
The owner of the rooming house, Dennis Hildebrand, said dealing with the city has been difficult — saying bylaw officers have been quick to judge him and rough on residents.
“Unless the city plans on building low-income housing, then let me be and allow this house to exist for what it was built,” he says. “Even if these guys could get any money for housing, then they wouldn’t have any money for food.”
Ray nods. He describes trying to pay his bills on $610 a month. After the $500 rent he pays to Hildebrand and a $20 damage deposit, he has $90 to live on for the month — or $3 a day. Trying to find a place for less than $600 a month is next to impossible, he says. “There’s no places in town that will rent to those like us.”
Mayor Dan Ashton said he’s not surprised to hear residents like the boarding house, but they are responsible for public safety.
“That’s one of the difficulties. I’m very sure City of Penticton officials and city council understand there’s a need for it, however, attached to that need has to be the safety of the individuals,” he said. “We’re not prepared to take the chance. Just like anybody, there’s rules and regulations with public safety. That’s the issue that has to be addressed here, is the safety of those tenants.”
Coun. Garry Litke used to sit on the city’s social development housing committee, which tried to advocate for more rental housing given recent zero vacancy rates. He says housing must meet the safety provisions in the building code whether the town is grappling with a rental squeeze or not.
“I have sympathy for those who are having difficulty finding affordable accommodation. But we’re not going to put their lives in jeopardy. There’s got to be safer solutions for them,” he said, adding some social service agencies like the Salvation Army tailor offerings according to individuals with unique needs. “There are places where people can go without putting their lives in jeopardy. Maybe people don’t know those options are out there.”
Hildebrand said he has been working to ensure safety by upgrading the building. He expressed frustration with keeping up with city demands, as communication was impeded due to the Canada Post labour dispute earlier this summer.
“These people think I’m ignoring all these letters to the city, but I didn’t get my mail for a month because of the postal (lockout),” he said, adding he is being fined $600 daily for the infractions. The total is nearing $20,000. “They fined me and brought it to collections before I had a chance to contest it.
“It’s become personal. They don’t like me.”
From the outside, passersby could note a sprinkled lawn, flowers, manicured shrubs and a garden with rows of corn. Al explains that everyone gets their own plot to grow vegetables, in addition to cleaning duties around the house. “Everyone has a little job,” he said.
A tour of the main floor revealed a completely remodelled bathroom for residents, a security camera in the hall, hygienic rooms and even a piano in the hallway occasionally played by boarders. (The basement, where the main points of contention exist with the city, was not included in the tour.)
Hildebrand says he has installed smoke detectors and alarms, and has fire extinguishers on site. He said he plans on locking up the basement and going back to the original business licence that allows for eight boarders maximum, compared to the 11 he was licensed for previously. But by doing that, Hildebrand doesn’t know if he can cover his costs.
“Some of the residents don’t pay rent,” he said, adding he charges what they can afford and oftentimes boarders are late with payments. “So cutting it down by three rooms is tough.”
Residents who are wondering if they will be homeless soon are also hoping the situation can be resolved quickly and without additional stress.
“Dennis, he’s always been good to me,” Ray said, recalling how he once had his bike stolen and Hildebrand brought him a replacement the next day.
“It takes people to say, ‘Leave this guy alone. He’s doing good for society,’” Al said.