Victor Henry thumps his fist on the apartment door.
Cable news blaring from a TV is the only reply.
“Hey Louis, you home?” he tries again. “It’s Vic.”
“Oh!” A muffled voice answers. “Come on in!”
Inside Louis Romualdi sprawls on his bed, a Team Canada ball cap pushed far back on his head. The walls of his basement apartment are tobacco-stained, snaked over with wires and the cords of hotel-room lamps, the kind with the plastic covers. A reprint of The Last Supper hangs over his bed.
Louis is a client at Houselink — a non-profit organization that provides affordable housing, supportive counselling, and programming for people with mental health challenges. It’s a way to help them remain stable and housed, but still retain agency over their own lives and input into how their community is run. Houselink calls them “members”, because anyone who becomes a tenant is invited to become a voting member of the corporation. As a member, they get to vote in the board of directors annually, and are also able to run themselves. In fact, 50% of Houselink’s board are residents.
Victor is one of Houselink’s maintenance workers — officially, he and two other workers are responsible for fixing what’s broken at Houselink’s 22 properties around Toronto. A lot of the work involves scrambling to cover urgent fixes like ruptured pipes, broken heaters, flooding or electrical shorts. Housing emergencies don’t always respect 9–5 hours. But while Victor’s just a maintenance guy on paper, in reality his job is about far more than unclogging toilets and swapping burned-out light bulbs.
“How are things, Louis? Everything okay in here?” Victor asks as he enters. “You haven’t had any more of those leaks?”
“Oh yeah, everything’s great,” Louis replies.
Louis has been a Houselink member for eight years, “and a mental patient on meds since I was 19,” he says. He became homeless when his sister and brother-in-law retired in 2010 and couldn’t care for him anymore. He spent five months in shelters until he was able to get a place with Houselink.
Louis says he’s known Victor since he moved in. “Without guys like him, this place would have been condemned six months ago. A lot of us rely on him like we rely on our support workers,” Louis says.
A soft-spoken 48-year-old with two boys, Victor carries himself with the ease of someone who’s known tough times and doesn’t judge others for theirs. Originally from Washington, D.C., he spent years eking out a living as an artist in cities across the U.S. before winding up in Montreal and, finally, Toronto.
It’s a quiet afternoon in February, and so far there have been no emergency calls. Next on his list is checking the work orders for a building on King Street West. Most days, Victor says, are not like this.
During January’s cold snap, there were a lot of calls for frozen pipes, leaks and flooding. Like the other two Houselink maintenance workers, Victor has to use his own car for work, and can only claim basic mileage, which is barely enough to cover his gas. The workload wears on his aging Subaru as much as it does on him. It’s so heavily loaded down with tools and spare supplies that the suspension sags. At least the extra weight adds some traction to his nearly bald tires in bad weather. When it broke down in early January, he had to swallow the cost of fixing it.
“We’re kind of at the bottom of the heap,” he says of his role at Houselink.
The work itself is hard, and can sometimes be dangerous. Drug use is common in many of the units. Tenants often see Victor as more of a peer than an authority figure, sometimes even lighting up crack pipes while Victor is in the middle of a repair. He has to watch out for needles in obscure places like behind the toilet or under the sofa, in case of Hepatitis and HIV.
And then there are the bed bugs. “He’s a really nice guy,” Victor says as he enters to inspect another tenant’s unit. “Just don’t sit down on anything.”
Houselink operates on what’s called a “housing first” model. It was one of the first of its kind when it launched, even before the concept rose to popularity in cities like New York in the 1990s.
The underlying principal is that people are better able to move forward with their lives if they aren’t scrambling to find housing or simply survive on the streets.
According to its official definition as published by the Homelessness Research Network Press, housing first “is not contingent upon readiness, or on ‘compliance’ (for instance, sobriety). Rather, it is a rights-based intervention rooted in the philosophy that all people deserve housing, and that adequate housing is a precondition for recovery.”
This is backed up by economics. A 2008 study commissioned by the Calgary Homelessness Foundation pegged the cost of providing supportive housing similar to Houselink at roughly $72,000 a year per person. Relying on emergency services to manage a person who is chronically homeless costs about $135,000 per year.
But housing first only works if the clients feel comfortable, empowered and supported in their homes. It’s Victor’s job to help make that happen.
In some of the shared housing units — where 4–5 tenants share a kitchen, bathroom and living space and have their own bedrooms — things can get pretty heated. Victor often finds locks on the cupboards and fridges. Roommates accuse each other of theft.
During his routine visits, Victor sometimes walks in on arguments and shouting matches between tenants that occasionally turn violent. Victor says he’s learned to diffuse and de-escalate situations like that, leaning on his empathy and relationships with the clients.
He’s learned to navigate other uncomfortable positions, too.
“Once I had this member who used to answer the door in her underwear. It was difficult to manage.”
Inside another unit, a bicycle and other belongings are piled in an empty living room, awaiting collection by Houselink staff. The owner, a young man in his 20s who’d recently been released from a psychiatric ward, killed himself earlier this winter.
“He was a really good kid,” Victor says with a heavy sigh.
While navigating all the potential pitfalls of such a challenging membership is tough, Victor’s rapport with the tenants also has it’s upsides. Many, like Louie Romualdi, see him as a friend and sometimes a confidant. They’ll talk to him about issues they may not feel comfortable bringing up with their support workers or other Houselink staff.
Chris Treacher has been getting into shouting matches with one of his neighbours. He just landed a new job working nights at a local Carribean joint called Island Foods, and the conflict with his neighbour is ruining the hours he needs to sleep.
“She’s a racist. She keeps calling me a n****r,” he says.
“What?” says Victor, a trace of outrage in his voice. “That is not okay. Have you told your support worker about it?”
Chris says he hasn’t.
“Leave it with me. I’ll file a report,” Victor says. “Otherwise, you okay?”
Chris says that he is, and insists on showing Victor a new pair of basketball shoes he just bought with money from his job at Island Foods.
“Take care, brother,” Victor says, as he leaves. He climbs the stairs from the basement, back out into the February snow. He slides in behind the wheel of his Subaru and heads off to another location to check on more work orders, more tenants. The work never stops, he says. And besides, someone has to keep the lights on.