By Peter Jackson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Nadine Hillier was in court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Tuesday, Oct. 18, as a witness in the case of a man who is alleged to have broken into her home more than two years ago.
“He used my device left on a sofa to record himself masturbating on my son’s clothes and left the video for me to find,” she said in a message to The Telegram. “The cops have a 100 per cent DNA match to him and it looks like he will walk free again despite this being like his 10th time going up on charges like this.”
Hillier was one of more than a dozen residents of the central Labrador town who responded to a Facebook message posted by The Telegram looking for comment on an escalation in lawlessness that has consumed the town of about 8,000 people.
The problem of “transients” living in the woods and on trails and roaming about town causing trouble has been a concern in Happy Valley for years, but residents say the situation has reached a crisis point in the past month, and some say it’s not just a case of waiting for something bad to happen anymore.
“People have been murdered, beaten, raped and froze to death,”
one man wrote.
It’s not clear whether the suspect in the Hillier home break-in is one of those transients, and the allegations have not been proven in court.
And that reflects the complexity of the problem.
While drugs and alcohol usually play a role, no one can put a finger on why the transient issue continues to grow, and why people seem to be camping outside later into the fall and winter.
Almost every night, witnesses hear screams behind their homes, or have to slam on the brakes when a person jumps out in front of their car.
Children and adults risk being accosted or even assaulted in broad daylight. Many have witnessed sexually inappropriate behaviour in public.
Residents say it’s not safe for children to go to local establishments for lunch, or play in playgrounds. A municipal patrol has been set up to protect kids taking a trail from the high school to Tim Hortons.
Homes, businesses and cars have been broken into.
“It is very difficult to put into words the chaos which exists here and how it is making people feel,” said Sacha Fraser, whose family had to hire private security for their local convenience store.
Another convenience store owner says he’s had eight thefts since June, and is losing his regular customers.
Mitch Maidment, owner of Grafter’s Pub, has seen his share of criminal behaviour.
“The other month, a guy was banging on the door of the pub while the bartender was inside cleaning up, telling her to come out so he could stab her,” Maidment said in a message. “Had one girl the other week ask us to call the cops for her because a man in a dress was trying to beat her up. I, myself, have had a few of them threaten to stab me. At night, I’ve heard a girl screaming out on the bike trail next door that somebody was trying to kill her, but when I went out it was too dark to do anything.”
One thing is clear, says Jackie Compton Hobbs, chair of the Happy Valley-Goose Bay Houseless and Homeless Coalition.
“Public safety needs to be the No. 1 priority.”
The homeless coalition helps place families in permanent or temporary housing, often with the help of the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp. (NLHC).
But even Compton Hobbs admits most of the 80 or more people who are living off the grid are not actually looking for a roof over their heads.
“It’s very complex,” she said.
Michelle Kinney, a Nunatsiavut Government member who runs the local Housing Hub shelter, agrees.
“It’s hard to just discuss it without any context,” she told The Telegram.
“There are a lot of discussions happening. There’s discussion around a purpose-built facility for Happy Valley-Goose Bay which would offer shelter spaces, individual apartments, board and lodging, bedsitter kind of arrangements, as well as community supports.”
But Kinney says the transients she sees are not coming for a bed at night.
“We have increased demand at the shelter for services. So, we have a lot of people dropping in during the day for meals, washrooms, laundry, showers, clothing, hygiene supplies those sorts of things,” she said.
The shelter can accommodate up to 14 people overnight, she said, and any overflow can be referred to NLHC emergency housing, which will pay to put them up in the 68-room Labrador Inn.
Kinney can rattle off a litany of things the province and the community have done for those who refuse to seek shelter. That includes everything from financial outreach to providing rain ponchos and thermal blankets.
But sometimes that’s not enough to keep them safe. Last winter, two people were found dead in separate incidents outside the Housing Hub and the Labrador Inn.
“The individual that perished outside the shelter, had he come to the shelter door that night, he would have had a place to stay.
The lady who died at the Labrador Inn had a room at the Labrador Inn, so it wasn’t an accommodation issue.”
Fraser and others say they’ve received a lot of empathy from provincial and municipal politicians, but concrete action has been in short supply.
The Telegram is still trying to arrange interviews with both Innu leaders and provincial government ministers who were assigned to an acute rescue team in June to find short-term solutions to the problem while the bigger picture is being addressed.
No arrangements had been made as of deadline.
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for THE TELEGRAM
. LJI is a federally funded program. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.