NL·CBC Investigates

Inside a new shelter that is trying to fill a desperate gap in emergency housing

Ashley Ben Said has become a significant player in emergency housing in St. John's, and is providing a service that government has effectively outsourced.

Ashley Ben Said is one of the people providing a service that government has effectively outsourced

A blonde woman in a black dress stands in front of rows of single beds in a brightly-painted room.
Ashley Ben Said, who operates non-profit and for-profit shelters in St. John's, says the goal is to transition clients to supportive housing. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

Sheltered, a CBC Investigates series, examines the housing crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador — telling the stories of the people living it, while scrutinizing the policies and politics behind it.

Billy Butler opens the door of the fridge, takes out an apple and shines it on the arm of his hoodie.

"Oh yes, look, she got 'er full," Butler says, bending to look at the well-stocked fridge.

Butler smiles as he makes his way through the new Safe Haven 40-bed shelter and 30-space warming centre on St. Clare Avenue in St. John's.

In a few hours, he and more than a dozen other men who have been living at another nearby shelter, a rectory on LeMarchant Road, will soon move in.

"[I'd] probably be in a tent somewhere, or on the street looking for a place to sleep," says Butler.

'Prices were outrageous'

Butler says he had trouble finding a place to live in St. John's after he moved from Bell Island. The move was necessary for medical appointments, he says, because a serious motorcycle collision in 2019 left him unable to work.

"The prices were outrageous. Bachelor apartments well over $1,000 and then getting money for food, everything was outrageous here in St. Johns," he says.

"There are a lot of people with mental health and addictions here on the street. I find it really hard to figure out how they're doing it, because they can't read, they can't write, some of them, and trying to navigate and find a place."

Butler called the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation. The NLHC connected him with Ashley Ben Said, who owns and operates a number of non-profit and for-profit shelters in St. John's.

"I'm lucky," he said.

A strawberry blonde-haired man is smiling and is wearing a hoodie and baseball cap.
Billy Butler, 49, is living at the Safe Haven shelter on St. Clare Avenue. He moved to St. John's from Bell Island following a motorcycle accident. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Ben Said's non-profit, Safe Haven, recently won a government tender to operate a low-barrier shelter using a harm reduction approach that doesn't turn people away based on their wellness and sobriety. It's located in the top portion of the Church of the Good Samaritan, an offshoot of the Anglican Church.

"We're trying to cover the bases with everybody, get everybody in from the cold before the winter comes," Ben Said told CBC News in a recent interview.

'Our boys'

The newest shelter will operate between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. and will be managed across two large rooms with dedicated staff and security on site. The provincial government is providing $2 million toward its operation. 

The space was donated by the church, which is also providing kitchen space and volunteers to cook the men supper.

It's a stark change in the normal course of life at the church, with parishioners — some of them well into their 80s — trading in their kitchen aprons for naloxone kits as they learn what they should do if "one of their boys," as Father Darrell Critch calls them — overdoses. 

A large gold cross decorates a tower which juts from a large red building.
The Anglican Church of the Good Samaritan, at the former St. Michael's Church on St. Clare Avenue, opened in 2020 thanks to a $2.5-million donation from an anonymous donor. The church broke away from the Anglican Church of Canada over opposing views on issues like same-sex marriage. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

"It grieves us that we need to have that training, but we do," said Critch.

"I've been really blessed that folks here at the church have been really willing to step up and to do their part to feed the boys and come alongside the boys and to do that kind of intimidating training."

Each Tuesday, tables inside the newly renovated church take shape with unusual pairings, as men from the shelter eat and converse with parishioners.

"We rejoice with them as they get apartments and help find furniture for them and whatnot, and try to be encouraging when they're still waiting and in the midst of a housing crisis," said Critch.

"I think from the church's perspective, what more should we be doing if not this kind of work?"

The working poor

Ben Said began more than a decade ago as a housing co-ordinator with what was then called the St. John's Native Friendship Centre, now First Light. Today she operates both non-profit shelters and for-profit shelters and housing units, though she says she is in the process of moving two of her properties under the non-profit umbrella. 

"I've been doing this for close on 15 years, so over the last decade and a half everything has changed," she said.

"We used to see a lot of just single individuals, a lot of single males. Now we have a lot more females in the province that are requiring services and a lot of families." 

WATCH | Parishioners at a St. John's church have opened their doors and arms to a population of single men: 

Ben Said, who operates the only family shelter in St. John's, has recently noticed more families left homeless because their landlord increased rent and they have nowhere else to go. 

"Most of the families that we work with are the working poor," Ben Said noted.

"People are working minimum wage jobs, and it just can't keep up with the rent costs. And then they're just in this situation that they didn't anticipate being in with kids."

The cost of homelessness

Like other private operators, Ben Said charges the housing corporation a nightly rate. In her case, it's $110 per night for adults and $55 per night for children under the age of 12.

According to an access to information request, the province spent over $680,000 in 2022 for Ben Said's non-profit accommodations and over $1 million for two for-profit properties, on Golf Avenue and Hazelwood Crescent.

The rectory on LeMarchant Road, which once held only men, will now become 22 beds for female, transgender and non-binary people.

A for-profit property on Golf Avenue, where women are currently living, will move to supportive, permanent board and lodgings.

According to Ben Said, the services offered at her facilities — including two chefs, a clinical psychologist, social worker and 24-hour staff — help set her apart from other for-profit operators.

"Maybe other private shelters aren't the same, but we try to be able to help people in every way that we can help them," said Ben Said. 

In the wake of a CBC News investigation in 2019, then housing minister Lisa Dempster said the province was moving away from for-profits and leaning into non-profits instead.

However, that hasn't happened. The province spent over $5.2 million between April 1, 2022, and March 31, 2023, on for-profit housing and hotels — most of which don't have any wraparound services. 

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson of Livingstone Street in St. John's found a man sleeping in the back of his truck on Saturday. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

Days after Safe Haven opened its doors, St. John's resident Mark Wilson made a startling discovery in the pan of his pickup truck: a man was sleeping there.

Wilson said he and others in the community have been trying for weeks to get the man housing but have been unsuccessful.

WATCH | Minister Paul Pike says his government is doing a 'stellar job' trying to create housing units: 

What the minister in charge of housing says about efforts to tackle a housing crisis

8 months ago
Duration 4:49
Minister Paul Pike took questions from reporters at a housing announcement at St. John’s city hall about what the provincial government is doing to address a severe lack of affordable housing.

"It's not suitable to sleep in my truck. He should have a shelter bed. That's what the system is supposed to provide," said Wilson, who lives on Livingstone Street in downtown St. John's and advocates for housing, health and addictions services for the area. 

Wilson says he called the NLHC emergency housing line but was told there was nowhere for the man to go. 

He slept in the pan of his truck for four more nights.

"The system certainly has lots of holes, lots of issues where we we're still paying for this system to be in place," he said. 

"If people don't have housing, there are implications to that, whether it's with the health-care system, whether it's with the RNC, with crime. People need certain things and they're not getting it, and it's costing us more money."

What's the solution?

Not everyone is satisfied with the shelter system, including some individuals who protested across from Confederation Building overnight Monday into Tuesday.

A group of protesters told reporters they've experienced violence in the shelter system and want to find a permanent housing solution.

Ben Said said she wants the same, but says it won't happen immediately. 

"I would like to see people transition from shelter to supportive housing," Ben Said said. 

Ben Said applied to Newfoundland and Labrador Housing to develop a 20-unit apartment building to move clients from shelter to housing that is affordable.

"I would like for all of us to come together and create more permanent housing solutions, because without doing that, we won't get ahead of it."

Download our free CBC News app to sign up for push alerts for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador. Click here to visit our landing page.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ariana Kelland

Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit. Email: ariana.kelland@cbc.ca

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for the top stories in Newfoundland and Labrador.

...

The next issue of CBC Newfoundland and Labrador newsletter will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Google Terms of Service apply.