“We’re over 50 closures this year and we are still trying to work with some property owners to restore.”
That, from Yvonne Raymer, assistant chief with the Saskatoon Fire Department, who said they are seeing year-over-year increases in home closures across the city.
A partnership with USask will dive into housing insecurity in Saskatoon, and Raymer hopes they can find some answers as to why they’re seeing these increasing numbers.
“It’s really valuable for us to be able to sort of analyze and evaluate, have a sort of fresh lens looking at our process, what we do, the impacts, looking at gaps and barriers, not just within our system but within municipal government. A lot of it is with our provincial government as well,” Raymer said.
USask and Saskatoon Fire Department collaborate on housing insecurity project
She said they close buildings if they have an imminent risk of collapsing or are collapsing and failing, if there’s no heat in the winter, and for things related to water and sewer.
“It doesn’t always trigger a closure. We do try to work with the property owner and try to solution.”
Raymer said 2019 was when these closures started increasing, jumping by about 10 each year.
“We are finding very extreme measures when we’re going in. Is it that they’re not reporting it soon enough? Is it that they don’t understand the bylaw or that the fire department is here to actually help them restore it? Is it a landlord that’s maybe delinquent in maintaining? Is it education that we need to do? Is it more enforcement? Do we try to reach out to some of those property owners who maybe own quite a few, try to speak to them about this?”
She said they recognize that closures can heavily affect tenants and that they will end up being displaced for a couple of months.
“And some of them never do get restored. Some of them end up getting demolished.”
She said the property maintenance bylaw has been in place for almost 30 years and for many years they were only seeing a handful of closures each year but have seen a definite increase within the last three or four years.
Raymer said they are looking to see why there is such an increase in closures and hopefully become more proactive to prevent tenants from being displaced.
She said part of this issue is a socioeconomic one, that some residents can’t afford the properties where these closures are being implemented.
“We’re finding multiple people living together that maybe aren’t high-functioning, so that’s a concern, but that’s the only way they can make rent.”
Raymer said recently they are seeing seniors being affected by these problems.
Saskatoon City Council hears from first responders on challenges facing unhoused population
“Lately what we’ve noticed is elderly people aren’t able to survive off of CPP (the Canadian Pension Plan), so they may not be able to pay their utilities, next thing you know utilities aren’t working and we may be there for a fire or the neighbours are noticing something.
“It’s really devastating to hear that they’ve worked their whole life and they’re on CPP and they can’t afford to pay utilities or to maintain a home.”
She said the other issue they see is people on income assistance, noting that they’re under the poverty line and end up living in similar subpar conditions.
“Those are the two most predominant we see, the third being mental health with the hoarding issue.”
Raymer says it’s not part of their line of work, but they do sometimes try to have a conversation with some of these seniors about possibly downsizing.
“It’s very difficult for an elderly person, who maybe has had that home for 30 or 40 years, to hear, ‘Well, maybe if you sold it you’d have some money and then you’d be able to rent something that would be habitable.’”
4-year strategy will help first responders assess on-the-job risks: Saskatoon fire chief
She said this is becoming a capacity issue for the fire inspectors and is taking them away from other work they do.
Raymer said on top of this, they are seeing a record number of homeless people in the city, but tenants displaced by closures aren’t joining that population.
“We work really hard, the one thing the fire department does not want to do is have to close down your house but contribute to homelessness.”
She said they try to follow up as much as they can and do check-ins to make sure these people are still in housing after they’ve been displaced.
Gordon Taylor, executive director of the Salvation Army in Saskatoon, said one of the biggest hurdles in Saskatoon and many other cities is the lack of affordable housing.
He spoke about some of the work they do with the fire department in terms of helping people who have been displaced.
“We partner with the fire department in a lot of different ways, they’re awesome to work with,” Taylor said.
He said they offer a continuum of care through their shelter, saying people have access to case workers, chaplains and counsellors to help form a plan to work toward being housed.
“There are many steps along that way and different steps for different people.”
Global News reached out to the Social Services Ministry for comment and received a statement.
“Social Services works closely with community partners, including municipal services, to meet the basic needs of people who may be impacted by building closures. The ministry provides emergency support to people who are at risk of experiencing homelessness due to these circumstances by connecting them to income and housing supports. The ministry works with clients to develop longer term plans to connect them to stable housing in their community,” the statement said.
The ministry added that anyone in need of support should contact them.
© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.