The plight of some of Toronto’s most vulnerable citizens is putting the Ontario government in the hot seat, after a CityNews investigation found multiple deaths and other unreported incidents at illegal group homes.
“How many people need to lose their lives in order for this Liberal government to take action on unlicensed group homes?” asked Lisa Gretzky, the New Democrat’s critic for community and social services, at Queen’s Park today.
After a series of stories that began airing last week, today we brought what we found to Queens Park to ask the government why they have allowed this problem to go on for years.
“If the group homes are illegal, why do they allow them to run? And if they need them, why don’t they regulate them?” says Anne-Marie Pollock, whose father, 70-year-old Esa Lehmusjurri, died alone as he tried to escape his illegal group home last year. He was illegally locked inside and was charged nearly $3,900 over four weeks to share a mouse-infested basement. His case, and those of three other people who died or were injured in group homes, were cited by critics as cause for alarm today in the legislature.
Most residents in illegal group homes are elderly or have mental and physical health issues. When Pollock went to pick up her father’s belongings, she was shocked by his living conditions. She took photos showing his bed in the basement, covered in mouse droppings which were mixed in with his medication.
“It was horrifying. Me and my brother – it was so upsetting, we were crying,” she said. “The people there were not clean. They were not well cared for.”
CityNews also spoke to Dave, a pseudonym to protect the identity of another former resident of a group home, who ended up there for seven months. Dave lost his home while in hospital being treated for lung cancer. He said food, safety and care were scarce, while he lived in crowded and unclean conditions.
“Filthy, you turned on the light in the kitchen at night and you could see the cockroaches swarming, almost a moving carpet, there were thousands of them everywhere,” he said. Dave managed to get out with the help of friends and now lives with his daughter in an apartment.
No one can say how many illegal group homes are operating in Toronto but a 2016 OPP investigation found there are numerous operations across the GTA and likely throughout Ontario.
“The examples you gave are unacceptable that anyone should have to endure those conditions,” Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins told CityNews.
He says that it’s primarily Toronto and other cities’ responsibility to regulate group homes, but admits that oversight appears to be inadequate. However, he agrees that licensing care facilities is a provincial responsibility.
“I’ve asked my ministry to take the lead, engage other ministries, and find a solution,” he said.
Hoskins denies the allegation the government has allowed illegal group homes to persist because of the shortage in legitimate long-term care facilities. But the NDP say the province is not moving quickly enough to solve either the shortage of spaces, or the persistence of illegal homes.
“The Liberals have had 14 years to address the fact that when people are released from hospital […] there’s no room in licensed group homes,” says Gretzky. The NDP have a bill before the legislature that would require group home operators to have a license from a provincial minister.
Pollock says that without change, more people will die in illegal group homes like her father did.
“People have died. People will be injured. People are not being cared for, and people are getting sick. These are elderly, vulnerable people of our community, and they need help.”