Monday, December 30, 2013

Rupert Hotel Fire and Canada's Hidden Emergency

(This story originally appeared at

Last Monday December 23rd was the 24th anniversary of the Rupert Hotel fire that killed nine men and one woman in Toronto.

In 1989 the Rupert was overcrowded and badly maintained.  The tragedy served as a wake up call and for a time new safer accommodation was designed and built.

For those of us who are involved with individuals and families forced to live in rooming houses or other inadequate housing, the anniversary is a time to reflect on whether things have improved.

Rupert Hotel, Toronto 1980
Photo from flickr collations photostream

In that spirit, I’ve been reading results of a multi-city study that looks at health impacts on people living in this housing.

The study is called Housing Vulnerability and Health: Canada’s Hidden Emergency.

It was put together by the Research Alliance for Canadian Homelessness and Health (REACH).  The research was based on the health and housing status of 1,200 vulnerably housed and homeless single adults in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.

First, some definitions.

Homeless, for the purposes of this study, referred to someone “living in a shelter, on the street, or in other places not intended for human habitation.”   Couch surfers also were considered to be homeless.

Who are the “vulnerably housed?”

The authors used this definition to describe an individual who had their own place but at some point in the previous year had been homeless or had moved at least twice.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the study found that there were really no differences in the health of those people who were homeless and those who were vulnerably housed.

Both groups had serious physical health problems.  We are talking about significant chronic health conditions here.  Rates of 33% for arthritis, 30% for Hepatitis B and C, 18% with high blood pressure and so on.

More than half of those surveyed reported a past diagnosis of a mental health problem. Sixty-one percent had had a traumatic brain injury at some point.

Individuals surveyed had problems accessing the health care they needed for various reasons.

In the year prior to the survey, more than half had visited an emergency department and a quarter of those surveyed had been hospitalized for at least one night. (That figure does not include emergency room stays.)

Thirty eight percent (38%) had been beaten up or attacked in that past year.

Getting adequate and sufficient food was an issue.

An earlier study that examined the deaths of 15,000 people living in such housing had some shocking results.  For example, average life span of these 15,000 was “7-10 years shorter than the life span of the general Canadian population.”  Women had about the same chance of living to the age of 75 as an average women in Guatemala, a country where many lack access to basic health care.

The takeaway from the Housing Vulnerability and Health research is this:  On any given night in Canada for every one person sleeping in a shelter, there are 23 more people living with housing vulnerability.  It is indeed “Canada’s Hidden Emergency.”

Hamilton’s Recent History

More than a decade ago, a number of housing advocates and workers, led by outreach worker Suzanne Swanton, put together a film. The film documented the situations of people living in rooming houses in Hamilton.  We had hoped the movie would spur change, would help people understand not only what a rooming house is but also what the conditions are like in rooming houses.
For example, over the years the legislation has changed so that most residents in rooming houses are considered to be tenants and have rights and responsibilities of tenants.  (See a blog piece from earlier this year for more on this including comment from Mike Ollier, the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic’s Director of Legal Services.

Beginning in the nineties this kind of housing had become the only real option for many Hamilton residents with low incomes. Our experience was that while some of this housing wasn’t bad the conditions in most were deplorable.

Our film didn’t really look at the kind of health issues portrayed in the REACH survey. That research suggests that nearly nine thousand households (8,755) in Hamilton experience housing vulnerability.  (This figure is from 2006 data and includes all households not just one person ones.)

What’s Next?

The fact that the City of Hamilton is finally moving to proactive enforcement of zoning and licensing regulations is a positive step.

However, these actions don’t really address, and shouldn’t be expected to address, health issues.  The solutions, though, are well known and outlined in the research paper.

We need housing that is of good quality and affordable.  Some people could use on site services (supportive housing) or service provider visitations (supported housing).  Ideally, single dwelling units with their own kitchen and bathrooms will become more available.

In Hamilton, we take great pride in striving to make the City the best place to raise a child. In that context, the situations of single unattached individuals often are forgotten.
A story written four years ago for Raise the Hammer provides more history on rooming houses in Hamilton and the Rupert Fire. (

The REACH paper can be found at

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