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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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Things might be looking up, though.

Dave has given his one-month notice — a salute to tenancy rules that few rooming house residents bother with — and plans to move in to a new, more stable and supportive rooming house down the street run by a neighbourhood activist and minister.

Until then, he’ll keep grappling with the kinds of small, irritating problems that can balloon into big fights among residents. Most of the doorbells don’t work, meaning visitors often scream up at the house to get a tenant’s attention.

There’s a large hole in the bottom of the mailbox, so mail gets scattered around the stoop. Dave once found his disability cheque lying in a puddle of water at the bottom of the steps, so he microwaved it for seven minutes and it was good enough for the bank.

Dave has lived in the house for two years and has not met the landlords once. He does the math and figures the owners make an easy $75,000 from the Spence Street house. Dave is the one who jokes the owners must be relaxing in the Cayman Islands.

They might as well be. The rooming house is registered to Esperanza and Ruby Pelland, and is one of three they own in the neighbourhood.

But residents say the real owners are two ex-cops, including James Pelland. Six years ago, the CBC ran a series of stories about brazen drug-dealing in the house and a crackdown by the province under the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act. Neighbours, local activists and city councillors were appalled the owner, a patrol sergeant at the time, was ignoring rampant criminal activity on his property and the pleas of neighbours to stop it.

This is a fairly stable time in the Spence house, even though there is no caretaker — a vital part of the alchemy that makes a rooming house function. The last caretaker, a tough, handy guy, was willing to drop the hammer on unruly residents, but he was fired about six months ago. After that, a violent, mentally-ill crack dealer lived in one of the second floor rooms, causing havoc before being evicted -- the kind of bad apple that can upset the delicate compatibility of 18 troubled people living in close quarters.

The dealer was a volatile, intimidating presence, and a relentless mooch. He even made gentle Michael mad.

"Every day it was ‘you got a smoke? You got 20 bucks?’," said Michael, who worked for years at Perth’s Drycleaners until he was laid off in 1983. "I got so mad I almost put my first through the door."

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