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P.E.I. woman living in Walmart parking lot after failing to find apartment

Heather DeBlois has been living in her car in this Charlottetown parking lot for the last month.
Heather DeBlois has been living in her car in this Charlottetown parking lot for the last month. - Mitch MacDonald

Heather DeBlois has nowhere to go.

The 63-year-old P.E.I. woman receives social assistance that amounts to several hundred dollars a month for living expenses.

The leftover amount is just enough to keep fuel in her car, which she has lived in at the Charlottetown Walmart parking lot for the past month after she could no longer afford the motel she had been staying at since last October.

It’s a place she never thought she would be, mixed in among the many RVs that stay at Walmart overnight in the summer.

“It’s not the greatest place,” said DeBlois, noting the recent hot weather has only made matters more difficult.

“It’s not easy living in a car because you don’t have a fridge… You put twenty in your car and you’re trying to keep cool (with the AC)… I only put twenty in at a time because I can’t afford anything else.

“I never thought I would be here in my life. It’s an experience… but it’s hard at my age.”

After selling her former property, DeBlois said she began searching for permanent housing about three years ago and has lived in a number of short-term rentals and motels since.

However, over the past few months her situation has turned dire.

When asked if she had looked at staying at Anderson House, DeBlois said she was told the Charlottetown women’s shelter was often at capacity.

She also doesn’t want to take the place of a woman who needs the shelter to escape from domestic violence.

“I do have a car, so I’m better off than some,” said DeBlois.

While DeBlois said she is on the government’s seniors housing list, and emphasized that she has been grateful for a provincial worker’s attempts to find her a home, she could not take her last offer of a unit inside a smoking apartment because of her asthma.

Another place she checked out recently was overpriced for its run-down, shabby condition.

She has also experienced the frustration of seeing the overwhelming number of “wanted” housing ads on Kijiji, while also hearing of hundreds of possible long-term units being rented out short-term through Airbnb.

It’s a struggle that is not exclusive to DeBlois, with a number of people contacting The Guardian in the last several months over a lack of affordable housing in the province.

From whole families to seniors with disabilities and single parents, many who contacted The Guardian pointed to different reasons behind the housing shortage.

However, most agreed on one thing.

“Things are desperate. I mean, there is a crisis on this Island,” said DeBlois.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) rental market survey released last October showed Charlottetown’s rental vacancy rate at 0.9 per cent.

“That’s the lowest ever recorded,” said Chris Janes, senior analyst, economics with the CMHC.

He expects the rate will continue to remain low due to three factors: a lack of new rental construction; seniors downsizing from homes into apartment rentals and the number of immigrants arriving through the provincial nominee program. He said many of those PNP arrivals tend to rent when they first come to the province, with about 10 per cent of last year’s approximately 2,000 settling in Charlottetown.

“We think that builders are recognizing there is a lack of supply and as we go forward the expectation will be to see more multi-rental construction, and that should help alleviate some of that vacancy rate pressure,” said Janes.

Bill Campbell, president of the Kings Square Affordable Housing Corporation, said the number of people unable to find affordable housing in Charlottetown appears to be growing. The corporation currently has at least 18 applications from people who are homeless or will be homeless within about a month.

“We have people approaching us telling us that they have two months to get out of their apartment because it’s being sold and (the new owner) wants to renovate the apartment and increase rent,” said Campbell, who also fears much of the new units now being built will also be beyond those individuals’ means. “(Housing) seems to be in a bit of a crisis for low income people.”

DeBlois, who was a crafts maker and weaver, had always lived in or rented homes owned by family members and was later a live-in caregiver for her mother before she died in 2009.

Now, it seems there is no “middle” when it comes to affordability for renting, she said.

“They say $1,000 is your minimum (monthly rent) now. I can’t even afford that,” said DeBlois, who was also frustrated after seeing the province’s attempts to bring former Islanders back to the province, as well as the influx of immigration in the past several years. “They have families and everything, where are they going to live?

“They’re just putting another burden on top of all of us who are here now.”

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