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Mental health advocate calls for changes after fire at London 'group home'

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One of London’s leading mental health advocates is calling for changes after a fire at what's been deemed a "group home" operating outside city bylaws.

Don Seymour, CEO of Canadian Mental Health Agency Middlesex (CMHA), said federal and provincial governments need to make more money available for agencies that offer housing to people living with mental illness.

That, Seymour said, would help ease the overload organizations like his face and close a “gap” in the system.

“We just don’t have enough housing for people with mental health (issues) and addictions,” he said. “For some people, literally, it’s a choice of either I live here or I’ll be homeless.

“And, where there’s a void, something will come in to fill it.”

In this case, that “something” was a 12-unit, three-storey walkup playing home to anywhere from 20 to 30 people, city officials said.

The building at 1451 Oxford St. E. — across the street from Fanshawe College — caught fire late Monday morning, sending two people to hospital.

One has since died, police confirmed Wednesday, but the cause has not been determined.

The major crimes unit is investigating, which is standard procedure. A postmortem is scheduled for Thursday.

The second victim was treated and released from hospital. The cause of the fire is also being investigated with help from the Ontario Fire Marshal and police.

Orest Katolyk, the city’s head of bylaw enforcement, said his officers were headed to Oxford Street before the fire broke out. They had been there multiple times after complaints — ranging from mattresses left outside to broken windows — from neighbours, residents and other city services.

Investigators determined in October that a group home was operating at the location, and the owner was given until February to clear the building. Now, after the fire, they won’t be allowed back in.

Group homes don’t have to be licenced unless they receive government funding, Katolyk said, but zoning laws dictate where and how they operate. The Oxford Street property wasn’t zoned for such a facility. Plus, it was housing more than eight people — the limit under city rules.

The fire department has also said the owner was in trouble for a lack of working smoke alarms.

Keith Charles, head of a group called People Helping People, was working with residents at the address.

“They are people who aren’t able to take care of themselves" and don’t qualify for a traditional group-home living situation, a volunteer said in a statement released Wednesday. “Because they are on Ontario Disability Support Program, (Charles) receives $14 per day to ensure they have food, clothing, transportation, medications, hygiene products, etc. — everything you need in life except the cost of the rent.”

Charles, a recovering addict, started People Helping People in 2009 after noticing that “peers in the recovery groups and rooms were struggling to even get themselves fed every day and maintain housing,” the statement said.

“(Charles) never set out to be assisting so many people with their daily living challenges,” it continued.

He started working with tenants of the Oxford Street building, owned by Dharma Meetun, in 2013.

“We believe that the landlord (was) only interested in collecting the rent and refused to do repairs, neglecting to pay the hydro as well,” the statement goes one. “He was repeatedly contacted about necessary repairs and fumigation.  He was constantly claiming to be out of the country.”

The statement indicates that the person “who set the fire” on Monday had just been released from hospital and “was not ready to be released to the community.” Charles had contacted police and fire officials about the man’s “careless smoking,” according to the statement.

CMHA stopped referring clients to the group some time ago because “we saw that there were issues,” Seymour said.

Among them, he said, was a lack of “qualified staff” to help people who have “complex needs.”

The type of housing being offered at 1451 Oxford St. E. “isn’t a London problem.”

“This is happening everywhere,” Seymour said.

Recent investments from senior levels of government have been directed toward community housing and that’s encouraging, he said.

But, he added, “there’s a long way to go."

“All I know is you had nearly 30 people in this building, and we’re all very sad about one person (dying),” he said. “But what if it had been 30 people.”

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