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Locals are stepping up, offering space in their homes to help new arrivals avoid long hotel stays

In early 2022, when the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador planned to receive several flights of Ukrainians fleeing the war, the initiative garnered media attention and a positive reaction. But in reality, at least in private, many in Newfoundland wondered if this good idea was doomed to fail.

Why might it fail? In a perenially shaky Newfoundland economy, a shortage of good paying jobs lends itself to a pessimism that tends to have a long memory. In March, Stats Canada released a report that found in a five-year period, Newfoundland and Labrador was “the only province to see its population decline.” It’s declining for a reason.

But there’s an additional problem: in this past year, it became obvious that in both the capital city, St. John’s, and much of the province, there’s a serious shortage of rental housing.

Many people saw pictures of a dozen or so folks lining up outside a home to view a rental in Mount Pearl. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) found a provincial vacancy rate of just 3.4 per cent last year. Corner Brook had just a 1.4 per cent vacancy. A hot housing market means many renters find rental rates raised sky high.

Folks with specific needs or pets saw their options dwindle. Add a 1,000 new arrivals from Ukraine and it seems as though you have a recipe for disaster. People were glad the province was taking action to bring these people here, but where would they stay?

It turns out many of them end up staying in places like St. Philip’s, with people like Rebecca White and her partner André Lamarche.

“We’re in our 20s, so we just got our first house last year,” White says in a recent interview. After seeing multiple posts on social media and the news about Ukrainians living in St. John’s hotels, White and her partner decided they had the ability to help someone and put out an offer to see what came of it.

Their house has a basement level mother-in-law suite that was going unused, so White put out a call on one of the Ukrainian-NL hosting groups on Facebook, and shortly thereafter received a message from a 22-year-old Ukrainian named Alper Hos.

“We went out to dinner and our personalities matched,” White says. She says her partner, André, was slightly more apprehensive about a stranger moving into their home, but he was also excited. Hos landed on May 9, spent three weeks at a Holiday Inn, and in late May moved in with White and Lamarche.

The one caveat White mentioned in her post was that St. Philip’s is a rural community, about 20 minutes from St. John’s. As some local commenters occasionally point out to Ukrainians who are considering moving to Newfoundland, public transit in the province and the capital is well below the level of service to which Europeans are accustomed. Hos’ job at a Mary Brown’s in St. John’s meant quite a bit of maneuvering with the car.

“We kind of ran a little bit of a taxi service,” White laughs. “It’s kind of like having a son in high school.”

Soon enough, though, they began to get into a routine, with White driving Hos to work in the afternoon and Lamarche picking him up from work around midnight. They each had different work schedules. Hos would come upstairs for coffee and often for meals. He experienced some culture shock, White says, missing certain foods, and trying to wrap his head around the size of cars and roads here.

And more importantly, he spent much of his time trying to coordinate with government agencies. He called IRCC (Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada) once a week to check if they were processing applications for his mother, grandmother, and younger sibling to join him. That process is ongoing.

Jean Graham, from the Association for New Canadians (ANC) in St. John’s, says it has been an extraordinary two years of changes for immigration non-profits. There was an almost-forgotten wave of Afghan refugees, then COVID, now a new wave of Ukrainians.

“I think everyone in the world, certainly everyone in Newfoundland and Labrador, is struggling finding housing,” Graham says.

Although at least one media report says Ukrainians are unhappy with their stay in a hotel, and pessimistic about their job prospects, Graham says, in general, the length of stays for newcomers isn’t been exceptionally long. She says there are approximately 200 hotel rooms set aside for recent arrivals and the average stay lasts 28.5 days.

Many have found housing. The provincial government brought ANC on side to help coordinate that search.

“We screen housing offers,” Graham says. They are not going to let folks rent in “a notorious boarding house downtown.” Instead, they have welcomed offers from people like White, folks who have a rental property they’re willing to offer to new Canadians.

ANC also has case workers and settlement workers, whose job is to help newcomers bridge the gap when they first arrive: knowing how to lock a door, how appliances work. This expansion of services at ANC has been funded by the provincial government.

There are complications of course. Public transit remains a major barrier. Europeans find it hard to believe they might need to buy a car in order to move about the city in a practical manner. There are some “hair-raising” stories, Graham says, about people buying cars that turn out to be lemons.

And yet there are also good news stories about Ukrainians settling comfortably, at least so far, including in more rural parts of the province. Graham cites one family that landed in Port Saunders, on the Great Northern Peninsula, who by all accounts have their kids in school and have found work.

When the Ukrainians began to arrive, Graham points out, there was a lot of “public warmth towards them,” a feeling of goodwill that made locals want to help out. While reporting this story, I came across dozens of offers of apartments for rent, free furniture and appliances, free places to stay. Graham says that whereas many of the recent refugees from Afghanistan navigated elsewhere, the number of Ukrainians who are moving on to other provinces in Canada is quite low.

Remarkably, 2022 saw Newfoundland’s tide of outmigration stop, and then reverse, for the first time in years. Historically the province has attracted the fewest immigrants, but a 1,000 or so Ukrainians add to another 1,000 or so who’d moved here during the pandemic.

When Hos initially landed in St. John’s, the price of rent was so high, he started looking at Montreal as a more serious option. It has a more established Ukrainian community, rent seems cheaper, and public transportation is more developed. But the obstacles of having to learn French dissuaded him.

In September, Hos found a three bedroom apartment in St. John’s in anticipation for his family’s arrival in Canada. Via a series of text messages, Hos says it seems his family, including his younger brother, may be granted visas and join him soon, perhaps in December.

“My brother has been waiting for a visa for almost six months,” he says. “My grandma and my mom got the visa.” In anticipation of their arrival, Hos found a larger, more expensive house, but not without difficulty. “I had a hard time finding a house,” he says. The fact apartment buildings are less common here and that things are more spread out, he says, made it more difficult.

Still, Hos says the culture in Newfoundland is easy to adapt to and the people are warmer and more friendly than he expected. Especially his host family.

White says it was nice to have the full run of their St. Philip’s home again, and they aren’t driving to pick someone up at midnight, but there are things she misses. She says she learned a lot about the culture of Ukraine and Turkey, where Hos’s father is from.

“The house is quieter,” she says. “It’s a bit bittersweet.”

Luke Quinton

Freelance writer based in St. John's, NL

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