There are cockroaches and bedbugs, crack dealers and addicts, but for some at least, a rooming house provides a roof over their heads.
Michael, a childlike pensioner who favours oversized 1970s glasses, has something you don’t expect to see in one of the filthiest, most menacing rooming houses in Winnipeg.
Lined up meticulously on his TV table sit a dozen tiny plastic toys and cars — the kind children get inside the chocolate egg of a Kinder Surprise.
"I’ve got 20 to 30 stuffed animals in my room," says Michael, a veteran resident of a behemoth rooming house on Spence Street. And, he loves Elvis. A nicely-curated cluster of photos of the King are tacked up on his wall.
Michael is fastidious, almost militarily so. He lines his shoes up neatly on newspaper and even puts a placemat under the old ghetto blaster that sits on the floor.
But the years of grime and decay — the walls a cigarette-smoke jaundice, a sink with no taps, pockmarked flooring, the hazy third-floor heat — make his efforts almost pyrrhic.
Michael’s rooming house just south of Sargent Avenue in the Spence neighbourhood is ground zero for one of the city’s most intractable and often tragic social policy problems, one that’s shifting into a full-blown crisis thanks to Winnipeg’s real estate boom.
Michael lives on a block with 19 other rooming houses, the biggest concentration in the neighbourhood. Even the longtime home of legendary Free Press editor John Dafoe is among them.
And, Michael’s neighbourhood has the most rooming houses in Winnipeg at nearly 120.
His is one of the more troublesome ones, bedevilled by crack dealers and addicts, young prostitutes and the kind of dreary dilapidation that breeds conflict among residents. Cockroaches and bedbugs compete for insect domination. There is no real caretaker, and the landlords are so absentee that residents joke they must be in the Cayman Islands. The only way to contact them is to leave a note in the safe where rent cheques are dropped.
But, shuttering the Spence Street mansion would make at least 18 people homeless.
As bad as it is, the three-storey warren of rooms represent a proper roof for some of the city’s most vulnerable, hardest-to-house people — not lazy welfare bums, mostly, but folks who have obvious mental or cognitive problems, chronic addictions like the young Red Seal welder who works just enough to support his crack habit, or who have weathered hardships and violence that most suburbanites cannot fathom.
"Rooming houses are a last resort for a lot of people, the only option," said Mary Burton, the rental housing worker at the Spence Neighbourhood Association. "You can’t judge a person by where they live. You don’t know what their story is."
Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories? Please use the form below and let us know.
Having problems with the form?Contact Us Directly
Harvard-educated architect to talk City Beautiful at News Café Tuesday
Guide fined $21.5K for illegal hunting practices
Teenage gang member gets 4 years for shooting up home
Dying woman cradled in arms of husband who attacked her, court told
God is a Scottish Drag Queen returns to Winnipeg
Author Joan Thomas at News Café Tuesday
Suspect pleads not guilty to second-degree murder in death of teen near Portage Place
Committee votes to rename park despite objections
Internee descendants call for boycott of the CMHR
Adrian Peterson 'sorry' for hurting child
One injured in St. Norbert Hotel robbery
Man dies after farm accident
ER backlogs can be reduced further, city committee told
Academy introduces Buddy Bench to foster friendship, inclusion
Alloway Arch to be part of new space to honour Winnipeg Foundation, donors
Candidates submit nomination papers
Construction worker injured in downtown accident
Trial underway for slaying of Fort Richmond teen
Gun, drugs seized after street altercation in St. Boniface
Former Bomber running in Daniel McIntyre
Warm weather today, cooler later in the week
Psychic medium Edward dropping by Café
The spirits move them... again and again
They refuse to give up hope
Council seat will be contested
Young and old run for Fox
Ouellette has $250-M plan to fix roads
I'll sleep with CEOs to aid the homeless
Amalgamation of two Crowns brings windfall
Winnipegger reaches 'golden age' of giving
Pope asked to protect albinos