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A house of last resort

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

This Spence Street building is rooming house has 18 suites.

There are cockroaches and bedbugs, crack dealers and addicts, but for some at least, a rooming house provides a roof over their heads.

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Dave, the intellectual of the house, lost his mattress because it was covered with bed bug feces. For a while, he was sleeping on the floor next to his small window, his bed made out of a sleeping bag and some pillows while his speckled black mattress lay tossed out the back door.

The house was just sprayed for bugs, and all of Dave’s possessions are still piled up in the middle of his room, leaving little space to manoeuvre around the slopping dormer ceiling.

"It’s absolutely Third World," said Dave. "This is what $350 will get you."

The combination of events that conspired to manoeuvre Dave into his cramped room on Spence are a "there but for the grace of God" kind of thing.

Fastidious in dress and handsome in a cool, nonchalant kind of way, Dave comes from a decent middle-class family, and has enjoyed a decent middle-class life.

As a young man, Dave worked as a taxi driver in the winter and on mowing crews in rural Manitoba in the summer.

"I loved both jobs immensely," he said.

When he neared his 40s, he started looking to settle down. He had a nice girlfriend, a house in Elmwood and, by then, his certificate in aerospace manufacturing at Red River College.

Then, in 2001, he lost his drivers licence for drunk driving and got laid off from Bristol Aerospace all in the same month, the start of his slow-burning slump. Then, he started gambling away his employment insurance. Though he got recalled at Bristol after a couple of years, he got fired in what he said was a cock-up of a misunderstanding. If you get fired, you can’t claim EI, and things went from bad to worse.

"I lost my house, my car was gone, my girlfriend was gone," said Dave. "I don’t blame her. I wasn’t a good catch at the time."

Dave bounced between jobs at Westeel, making grain bins, and at New Flyer, the bus manufacturer. He also got his license back and drove a cab again, though a tussle with a customer who refused to pay netted Dave an assault charge. At his lowest, he ended up at the Salvation Army.

"I heard that rooming houses were so hard to get, I just took the first one," said Dave, now on disability due to anxiety and depression. "I didn’t expect to be here two years."

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