In the home lottery sweepstakes, the big losers are winners of the Worst Home Welfare Funds contest.
One prays the soggy, sagging ceiling overhead caused by a leaky toilet doesn't cave in on her while she sleeps. Another "winner" shares one filthy bathroom with 17 other tenants. The third has to watch their step on front steps and flooring that are falling apart.
Today, photos of their abysmal abodes are being revealed by the contest highlighting how bad housing is for people relying on $285 a month for shelter allowance. Two of the three winners paid rent well above that. There were so many bad rooming-house entries, the three $100 prizes all went to occupants of the worst of them, said Lani Zastre, who met each entrant at their home and took photos. The social work student is working at the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, which belongs to the Employment and Income Assistance Advocates Network that sponsored the contest.
Zastre said some renters wanted to enter the contest but balked when they learned photos of their residence would be published. Some were afraid the pictures would identify them to authorities or their landlords, and they'd lose their housing benefits or their home. Zastre said many don't understand their rights.
"They feel this is what they deserve -- this is what they were expected to live in."
Some are dealing with addictions or mental illness or both and are vulnerable, she said.
"They feel hopeless or helpless."
The shelter allowance has barely budged in a decade, network members said. The 2013 provincial budget added $20 per month for some Employment and Income Assistance recipients who qualify for RentAid. In Winnipeg, where the vacancy rate is less than one per cent and rents have soared, the goal of the Worst Home Welfare Funds contest was to illustrate a desperate situation and prompt an increase in the shelter allowance, contest organizers said.
Some of the contestants' "winning features" included bedbugs, black mould, exposed electrical wires and general disrepair. For contest judge Ernest Merasty, who's been homeless in the past, high marks went to rooming houses with no screens on windows or locks on doors.
"For safety reasons, these are serious," said Merasty, 50.
"In the summertime, these rooms are like saunas." Opening a window lets in mosquitoes and opening a door lets in unwanted guests, said the man who's lived in rooming houses in the past.
"Someone tried to kick in my door once," he said. "The lock has to be proper."
Merasty grew up in the remote northern community of Brochet and said that was the best home he's ever had. Since leaving when he was 16 years old and battling mental-health issues and addictions, he's taken shelter on a mat at the Main Street Project, friends' couches and finally outdoors -- when he hit rock-bottom lying next to the river, cold and sick. He went to detox, got sober and lives at the Red Road Lodge, the only dry single-room-occupancy hotel in Winnipeg. He's waiting to start a master's program in indigenous development at the University of Winnipeg in the fall and looking for an apartment. In the meantime, he's happy to give homeless people a voice and hopes someone will listen.
"You get that hopeless, helpless feeling," he said.
Knowledge is power, said Merasty, who hopes a meeting Thursday afternoon to inform renters will empower them. The meeting at Crossways in Common put on by the EIA Advocates Network, the Winnipeg Rental Network and the West Broadway Community Ministry will answer questions such as what to do if their landlord doesn't spray for bedbugs, when they can be evicted and what to do if repairs aren't done.
Merasty said he knows what it's like to be in many of their shoes.
"You think the worst will happen to you and when it does, you think 'I should've expected it.' "
(Editor's note: The reporter agreed to be a contest judge. The judges chose the winners from photos of their rooming houses without knowing who the renters were or their addresses.)