Critics say nothing has changed one year after fatal fire at London group home

By Jennifer O’Brien, Kate Dubinski, The London Free Press

One year after a fatal group home fire exposed horrid living conditions for two dozen Londoners with mental illnesses, disabilities and addictions, what has changed?

Nothing, critics say, for those people or others like them — right across Ontario.

The province still refuses to regulate such group homes, saying they’re a municipal responsibility despite a provincial report more than 20 years ago that decried the conditions of tens of thousands of vulnerable Ontarians living in all kinds of unregulated housing.

Preventable deaths happened then and — as the London blaze underscores — still happen now.

City recommendations promised after the Nov. 3 fire, which killed 72-year-old David MacPherson and thrust the plight of people in unregulated housing under a harsh Ontario spotlight, were expected out this fall.

Now, they likely won’t be out until 2016.

Most of the former residents of 1451 Oxford St. — operated by Keith Charles and his group, People Helping People — have spent the past year bouncing from one place to the next, or between homelessness, couches, emergency shelters and hospital beds.

At one time or another, almost all have gone back to Charles, who runs other group homes across London.

“A year later, we haven’t been able to provide shelter in a province as resourceful as Ontario? This is a failure of priorities and a failure of leadership,” says MPP France Gelinas, the New Democrat health critic at Queen’s Park.

She credits The London Free Press — it peeled back questions the fire raised in investigative stories, earning a National Newspaper Award nomination — for igniting the issue at the legislature.

“Shame on the government and shame on all of us for not being able, a year later, to look after them better,” the Sudbury-area MPP said.

The story of Vanessa Lumley, 36, who lived at 1451 Oxford when the fire erupted, is similar to those of many former residents. After the fire, she and 23 others were taken to the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope shelter. She lived there about a month, went to hospital for awhile and was eventually released back to the shelter. A year later, she lives at another of Charles’ unregulated group homes.

“Sometimes I get paranoid, scared, and Keith tells me I’m fine,” said Lumley, a diagnosed schizophrenic. “(My social worker) doesn’t want me to live alone because I’m afraid of locks and locked doors and I have to keep the door open at least a little bit.”

Small supports once provided in Charles’ homes — mostly from students on placements from Fanshawe College and Western University — are gone, severed after conditions in the homes were revealed following the fire.

Gelinas said there’s more awareness at Queen’s Park since the fire about “the real faces of people living with mental illness and the dire poverty they live in” — but no action. “What is needed is a serious strategy,” she said. “You basically make housing available for people who are at risk of homelessness and dealing with a mental illness.”

In 1992, when Toronto economist and social advocate Ernie Lightman wrote his report for the province, the mentally ill were also an issue, discharged from provincial hospitals in an era of cutbacks with few places to go.

“The quality of residents lives . . . is frankly appalling,” he wrote. Two years after his report, Ontario had acted on only one of his 148 recommendations.

That was then, this is now — governments have long since downloaded many supports to municipalities, often with the vulnerable falling between the cracks.

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Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, the Liberal government’s minister responsible for Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy, just released a report by an expert panel and promised to end chronic homelessness in 10 years.

Advocates have long urged part of the strategy: one-on-one support and an address — not an emergency shelter, like a group home — for people released from Ontario hospitals, jails and other institutions.

But getting that kind of help for one person can require four different ministries to get involved — Health, Community Safety and Correctional Services, the Attorney General, and Municipal Affairs and Housing.

Good luck with that. Over two weeks, all four ministers declined Free Press interview requests.

“The mental health strategy is supposed to look after housing for people with mental illness. They’ve failed,” said Jeff Yurek, Progressive Conservative MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London. He cites Health Ontario figures showing hospital readmission rates for people with mental health problems haven’t improved in five years.

Yurek said the province could start by getting the health minister to work with the other ministers.

Matthews insists they will. “There is no excuse in a province as wealthy as Ontario and a city as wealthy as London that people go without the most basic need, and that is a home,” she said.

Yurek is skeptical. He challenged Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur at Queen’s Park after the fire. It’s her ministry that’s responsible for the office of the public guardian and trustee representatives — who manage financial affairs (i.e., pay rent and bills) for people on disability with mental illness, but do not inspect properties — but she deferred the issue to the community safety minister.

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Behind the scenes in London, there’s been unofficial progress. City bylaw officials are reviewing licensing regulations. “If it was simple, it would’ve been done already,” said Steve Giustizia, the city’s manager of housing services.

A committee to deal with “unsafe housing” for the city’s vulnerable includes dozens of support agencies. It got broad, very quickly — as one member said, its mandate went from helping those displaced by the fire to “making the world a better place” for all Londoners.

“There are a whole bunch of people out there,” said Giustizia. Subcommittees created a list of 28 recommendations to be formalized, he said. He hopes to get that down to 15 for a city council committee in January or February.

Informally, fire, bylaw and health inspectors are aware of issues that would pose “red flags” to each other and if they come across concerns, they get in touch.

That co-operation was cited for last month’s quick shutdown of a People Helping People group home on Hilton Place, where Charles said he placed six people with nowhere to go begging him to help. The place was in a rough area and was quickly overrun by crime.

When Charles called police, they quickly notified the health unit, fire and city bylaw departments and all inspectors went in together — under a new protocol, they say.

As for the residents, some are back in a different Keith Charles house, and one lives in a basement laundry room.

That they scattered means we’re still missing the point, which is the people, said Don Seymour, former head of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s local branch. He said after the Oxford Street blaze, city and fire officials arranged for transportation and temporary shelter for the residents who were burned out.

“Why wasn’t there a co-ordinated response in this case?” he asked, noting collaboration won’t fix anything if it doesn’t involve support workers for vulnerable people.

He said he can say with “certainty” the city is safer for the vulnerable because of heightened vigilance, but “the bottom line is, until there’s massive investment into the housing and community-based supports, it’s going to keep on happening. The agencies are working as good together as they ever have . . . (but) there are massive barriers to break down between different organizations.”

The regional coroner’s office said this week no inquest will be called into last year’s fire death because recommendations from other inquests have dealt with similar issues.

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‘SOMEBODY HAS TO STEP UP’

Other views:

Teresa Armstrong

London-Fanshawe NDP MPP

“It’s never soon enough when there’s a loss of life, but there are things we can do to move things forward to prevent this from happening again in this city or any other city,” says Armstrong. She sponsored a private member’s bill after the fire, which cleared second reading with all-party support, calling for a new Ontario agency to get ministries that deal with mental health working together. She also wants a coroner’s inquest “to find where the inefficiencies were” that led to the fire.

Jeff Schlemmer

Executive director, Neighbourhood Legal Services in London

“It is frustrating that a year later, we have no solution for any of those people and I suspect a year from now we won’t either. It’s not like we’ll say, ‘Here’s the new facility that’s opened up,’ ” said Schlemmer, who is on the city’s ­working group on the issue.

Peter Rozeluk

Executive director, Mission Services of London

A former accountant, Rozeluk said the biggest challenge is getting the province to get its act together. “Nobody should ever be discharged to an emergency shelter,” he said, adding “adequate and affordable housing is the biggest thing.”

John Pare

London police chief

Police call the health unit, the fire department and social services when they find an unsafe home. But nothing has changed for the most vulnerable in the last year, and nothing will, without more provincial money, he said. “It’s a health issue and group homes should be funded through the Health Ministry,” he said.

Sean Quigley

Spokesperson, London Poverty Research Centre

“Strong leadership and direction from the mayor is needed to create a unified approach to mental illness and homelessness. In terms of supports, nothing has changed, and that’s because of funding.”

James Hind

London fire inspector

Since the fire, more people have called with complaints about suspected unregulated group homes or unsafe conditions, he said. But the problem has been building in Ontario for decades. “We’re seeing some of the same people from Oxford Street in these other (unsafe) places. Keith Charles is providing housing for people that no one else will help. What he’s doing is a demonstration of everything that’s gone wrong.”

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LIFE SINCE OXFORD STREET

Last summer, The Free Press found Jenny Finch, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, living in a crime-ridden townhouse she shared with other former residents of 1451 Oxford St., as well as drug dealers, squatters and bed bugs.

Jenny has bounced around between shelters, hospital beds and couches since being burned out of Oxford Street last year.

These days, she rents the basement laundry room of a townhouse. The windows are broken, neighbourhood cats come and go. Her sink is a utility tub.

The rental deal was she would share the kitchen and living space with other tenants, but a lock went on her door after she urinated on the couch. She does that sometimes. Now she has to knock if she’s hungry.

Maybe that’s the safer option anyway. Finch’s shirt caught fire recently as she cooked macaroni and cheese. “I live every day, never knowing whether she’s going to be alive tomorrow,” said her mother, Charlene Finch.

“Jen’s a handful and she always will be. In some ways she’s so street wise, but in other ways, she’s a little kid.”

Cheryl Forchuk

London scientist, Lawson Health Research Institute, member of premier’s advisory panel on homelessness

Making sure people who are released from hospitals or jails have both social service and peer support is key, a Forchuk-led pilot project at nine hospitals in the province found.

Most of about 200 homeless people given housing and supports after being released from hospital are still housed a year later.

“I think what we have seen generally is a symptom of the larger problem of not having housing as a priority.”

Martha Connoy

Relative of the man killed in the London fire, director, community mental health programs, Mission Services of London

“If you look at governments, provincial and municipal, there is no responsibility. Someone has to step up to the plate,” she said, warning “it will happen again and again.”

A call to action (again?)

The London Poverty Research Centre at King’s University College is marking Dave MacPherson’s death with a “community conversation” about what has changed since then. It takes place Nov. 5 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at King’s.

Homeless outreach worker who knows former People Helping People residents who are still homeless

“Part of the reason the kerfuffle faded away was because people realized that if they made too much of an outcry, they may be pressured to accept some kind of responsibility for housing the folks Keith Charles housed.”

Keith Charles

The man behind People Helping People is still doing what he calls “God’s work.”

His three homes on Clarke Road are still occupied by many of the same people, but with a significant difference, he says — the supports he once had, from donors to interns and students volunteers, left in wake of the controversy after the Oxford Street fire.