Rodents, contaminated meals drive closure of St. Thomas, Ont., group house

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Terrible living conditions including rodent infestation, food contamination and problems with mold have caused public health officials to shut down a private retirement home in St. Thomas, Ontario.

Southwestern Public Health issued Walnut Manor’s closure order under Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act following an inspection following an outside fire on the building in May.

The inspectors found violations of fire protection regulations, a bedbug infestation and problems with the hot and cold water supply, which have since been resolved.

The health authorities are now working to find alternative accommodation for the 26 residents of the home, many of whom have special needs.

“We recognize their confusion, fear and concern,” said Dan Logie of Elgin-Middlesex, Canada’s Mental Health Association, which is committed to providing shelter and services to displaced residents.

The inspections started after the small fire in May.

Internal problems found after external fire

Kim Destun, of the St. Thomas Fire Department, said violations identified include fire doors that did not close properly, as well as issues with the home’s fire plan and staff training.

This prompted the health authorities to carry out an internal inspection.

Destun said the building was last inspected in 2019 when some minor issues were reported, but none of the severity noted after the May fire.

The home is owned by SupportiveLiving.ca, a company that operates more than a dozen homes in southern Ontario on a model that provides affordable lodging and meals – but no maintenance – in a group living environment in private and semi-private rooms.

The company’s website states that its accommodations are affordable and available “at a fraction of the cost of similar homes” for Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) customers.

CBC News asked CEO Vishal Chityal for comment but received no response by Wednesday afternoon.

When asked if the owner faces fines, health officials said they will first give instructions on how to fix the problems and then impose fines if the problems are not corrected.

The conditions of the home in Queen’s Park increased

Conditions at Walnut Manor had been previously reported, particularly during the debate at Queen’s Park over laws that would introduce licensing for privately owned group homes. Currently, they are not regulated by the province, which, according to critics, creates dangerous conditions for residents.

Niagara Center NDP MPP Jeff Burch mentioned the conditions at Walnut Manor in Queen’s Park last year. Burch told the story of Karen Barry, a Sarnia woman whose father lived at Walnut Manor.

The lack of oversight of these services for our most vulnerable citizens has in some cases resulted in physical harm and tragically death.– Jeff Burch, Niagara Center NDP MPP

During the debate, Burch mentioned many of the problems at Walnut Manor that health officials discovered during this recent inspection: rodent and bedbug infestations, and problems with hot water. Burch also mentioned food shortages and garbage that would pile up.

In 2014, a fire at People Helping People, a private group home in London, killed a 72-year-old man and caused the city in southwest Ontario to create its own license. However, there is no provincial licensing.

Burch said this leaves residents vulnerable, especially those who have special needs but don’t qualify for a bed in regulated long-term care homes or other facilities.

“A lot of people just end up there because they fail,” he said. “The lack of oversight over these services for our most vulnerable citizens has in some cases resulted in physical harm and tragically death.”

In 2017, Burch’s predecessor, MPP Cindy Forster, said her office received complaints about Chityal properties “every day”.

“Its tenants are at high risk – they are usually on ODSP or social assistance; they often suffer from physical disabilities, psychological problems and are heavily dependent on operators, ”said Forster at the time.