Newfoundland woman was 'living in fear' in a for-profit shelter. She was killed there

  • Canadian Press

Mark Wilson poses outside of a vacant property in central St. John's on Wednesday, June 5, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- Rayna Dove kept careful notes about her attempts to move out of the shelter in downtown St. John's, N.L., where her mother says she was "living in fear."

On Dec. 27, 2021, Dove's fears came true. She died there in the early morning hours, stabbed in the abdomen by another resident, David Quirke.

Joan Dunphy, Dove's mother, told a courtroom last month that her daughter's journals contained detailed entries about how afraid she was at the shelter, which is owned by a private landlord who is paid by the province to provide rooms to vulnerable people with nowhere else to live.

"She had voiced her concerns to her social worker and had requested a safer place to live," Dunphy read in a victim impact statement during a sentencing hearing in provincial Supreme Court. "There was a list of names that she had also contacted looking for safety .... These journal notes show how hard she was trying. But was anybody listening?"

Leaving aside Ontario, where the government could not provide clear confirmation, Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province to contract private landlords to provide shelter for its homeless population. In 2023, it paid these landlords more than $2.7 million, a 55 per cent jump from the previous year. The money went to three operators, who run seven shelters combined, with a collective capacity of 79 beds, said a spokesperson for the province's housing corporation.

Dove wrote in her journal that the door to her floor didn't have a lock. She wrote about feeling scared and unsafe, and that she was desperate to be given a better place to stay, her mother said.

Since her death, media coverage has raised concerns about these shelters, and the Newfoundland and Labrador government has promised change. Two homeless encampments sprang up last year in St. John's where many residents said they felt safer in tents than in for-profit shelters.

But little seems to have changed. Dove's worries about safety are echoed in six pages of complaints about the province's for-profit shelters filed between Nov. 1, 2023, and April 1 of this year. It's not clear how many shelters are the subject of complaints because identifying information is redacted. The complaints are written by outreach workers and other officials, and they were obtained from the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation through an access to information request.

They describe shelter residents feeling "terrified" and "in danger" in shelters they called "hell on earth."

Reports said people were "punched," "assaulted" and bullied. Residents said their identification, clothes and medication were stolen. They watched their housemates fight, use drugs and overdose. They reported being cold because the heat had been turned off. They described bedrooms with bugs on the floor and no locks on the doors.

"She reports that her safety concerns at her current placement are affecting her mental health and her sleep," says one entry from November. The worker logging the entry vouches for the complainant, saying she was "frequently crying and falling asleep" at another location offering services.

One person reported that they felt unsafe around the shelter owner, "and that this person should not be running a shelter."

Residents also reported going hungry, though shelter owners are paid to feed them. "People haven't eaten in days," said a December entry. "Client reported being fed one meal a day," said another, from February.

A man with mobility issues was "not provided food in this house and is never checked on by staff," said another note from December. He had to "walk across the street every time he needs food," and had recently fallen down the stairs.

"We are concerned that he is living in a two-storey home alone and could fall and seriously injure himself and no one would be aware," the note said.

Requests to be moved were often denied, according to the documents.

"(We) reminded him that we do not transfer clients unless the situation is deemed a threat to human life, etc.," said a comment from January.

Mark Wilson, a housing advocate in St. John's, says enough is enough.

"If there's not enough food, which is critical -- if there's not safety, if there's not supports -- how is that accountability for taxpayer money?" he asked in a recent interview.

Fred Hutton, the province's housing minister, said he wants to stop using for-profit facilities that offer no wraparound support, such as counselling. People need more than just a bed for the night, he said.

His department has also promised to release a report this month outlining standards the private shelters will have to meet.

"If these shelters don't adhere to the standards that will come in, we won't be using them," he said in a recent interview.

He said shelters are inspected four times a year by the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation, and facilities in the capital are also inspected by the City of St. John's.

Wilson wondered why the same problems come up again and again, despite these inspections. If shelter owners are getting away with not feeding their clients now, he wondered why they would begin adhering to new standards.

The province announced in January that it had signed a three-year, $20.7-million lease for a hotel it intends to use for transitional housing to provide care, including help for addictions and mental illness. That will help the province wean itself off for-profit shelters that don't supply much more than a bed, the housing minister said.

So far, just 11 people live at the hotel, but there is now an agreement in place for a local non-profit to run it.

"There's been criticism that this isn't moving as quickly as some would like, and I'd like to see it happen quicker as well," Hutton said. "But I will say this, I'd rather do it right."

Rayna Dove was 42 and the mother of two sons -- one of whom died last year, "unable to cope with or understand his mom's murder," Dunphy told the court.

"Rayna was a kind-hearted person. She would give her last dollar to a person in need," her mother said. "She deserved so much more."

Quirke was 20 when he killed Dove. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and will be sentenced on June 25.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2024.