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Rooming house checks a Band-Aid solution to larger poverty problems

City council is debating the size of the Band-Aid to slap across what amounts to an arterial bleed.

The scene of Winnipeg's so-called Murder Mansion, a rooming house at 624 Balmoral St., after a body was found in February 2013.

Metro file

The scene of Winnipeg's so-called Murder Mansion, a rooming house at 624 Balmoral St., after a body was found in February 2013.

Two things stand out from my first visit to Winnipeg's so called Murder Mansion – the blood on the ceiling and an elderly woman wearing a Northern Reflections sweatshirt.

A cub reporter at the time, I was there to door-knock following the stabbing death of Philip Mayur, one of the many people whose life has been cut short at the notorious Balmoral Street rooming house. Only one person was willing to speak to me about what happened: the woman in the pastel sweatshirt.

She invited me and the photographer I was with into her room, we sat on the bed as she took the only chair. There was a hotplate and kettle on her dresser. Possibly a microwave too, but I couldn't say for sure any more.

What I will never forget is the woman's story — a woman who looked like my grandmother, lived in a single room and now, couldn't walk to the shared bathroom without stepping over pools of blood. 

Most of her life she had worked as an educational assistant, not getting rich, but getting by. Then a relative needed financial help. She agreed, but the relative never re-payed the loan, so she was forced borrow money herself only to fall behind in payments, resulting in a shattered credit rating and rejections from reputable landlords. No savings, no credit and finally no employment, had ultimately meant living out her so-called retirement with no privacy, no safety and no certainly.

At least she wasn't homeless, she said.

If you polled residents of Winnipeg's rooming houses today, no doubt you'd find a great variety of people and stories, but there would be the one common denominator — everyone wants to live somewhere safe, secure and comfortable. No one wants to live in poverty, no one wants to keep a bucket in their room because it's too dangerous to venture out into common areas to use the shared facilities. No one wants to live in a fire trap.

And make no mistake, rooming houses are fire traps in this city. This year alone five people have died in Winnipeg rooming house fires, far more than in any other major Canadian city.

In response to those deaths, city council has decided that high-risk rooming houses will now be inspected once a year. It is a good, obvious, reasonable step that should have been taken many decades ago.

It's also a huge missed opportunity.

Rather than use these tragic fire deaths as a spring board to examine the real issues — poverty, marginalization and an utter lack of affordable housing — city council is debating the size of the Band-Aid to slap across what amounts to an arterial bleed.

Today, we need rooming houses — without them a great many more Winnipeggers would be experiencing homelessness. But rooming houses should not be seen as a permanent solution so much as a symptom of our society's utter failure to protect its most vulnerable citizens. 

Rooming houses can provide safe viable housing if done properly, with respect for tenants and care for facilities. A rare example of this is the Unger family's houses on Spence Street.

But by and large rooming houses are overpriced, overcrowded slums, operating in aging, inner-city buildings with little, if any, oversight. What it takes to change that is political will and if last week's discussion at city hall is any indication, that will simply isn't there.

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