When Margaret Beattie moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Hamilton seven years ago, her only piece of furniture was an upside down milk crate.
She’d sit on it in the evening and read by candlelight, feeling at peace, she said.
In her late 40s at the time, Beattie said she had moved straight from a shelter into the 15th storey unit at 20 Emerald St. N. — her first home on her own. Before that she’d been homeless or living with an abusive partner who, she said, fuelled the heroin addiction she battled for years.
“I had a husband who beat the hell out of me for 15 years,” Beattie told CBC Hamilton. “I got away over and over again and he always managed to find me.”
It wasn’t until after he died that Beattie said she was able to overcome her substance use and rebuild her life within the safety of her apartment.
But now, after a recent fire destroyed the apartment and all her possessions, she has to start over, again.
At about 3 a.m. on April 23, Beattie was sleeping on her pull-out couch in the living room when her rescue dog Heddy frantically nudged her face, awakening her to the sound of crackling.
Beattie said she sat up and looked around, stunned. Flames were climbing the wall behind her head and spreading across the ceiling and floor. She ran to the kitchen, grabbed a frying pan, filled it with water and splashed it toward the flames.
But the fire continued to spread.
“I grabbed my dog, dog food, my purse and ran out,” Beattie said.
No date set by property management for repairs
The fire destroyed everything she’d filled her home with over the years — mismatched furniture, knick-knacks and artwork to remember her friends and family who’d passed away.
Now, nearly two months later, the “nightmare” continues, Beattie said. About a week after the fire, Beattie said the building’s property management company DMS promised her a new unit, but hasn’t followed through.
The property manager is not returning her calls, she said.
“When you’re ignored by some who has a literal key that can help you find a new home, the loss of hope is absolutely devastating,” Beattie said.
The Sons of Italy, a registered charity and social club in Hamilton, owns the building, known as St. Johns Place, and others across the city, according to its website. Its housing corporation branch “operates five subsidized housing projects to meet the needs of families, seniors and persons with disabilities.”
The foundation’s contact Lewis Merolli said questions about Beattie’s situation should be directed to DMS.
“We unfortunately do not have any vacant units to offer at this point in time,” said Paul Smith, DMS’s chief administrative officer, in an email. “When repairs are completed the resident will be permitted to reoccupy the unit at the same rent level.”
He did not specify when that might be.
As of Friday, DMS had at least 19 units listed in buildings across Hamilton, including two in Beattie’s building. But Smith said those units in particular are not actually available — they advertise them as a way to have people added to wait lists.
When CBC Hamilton told Beattie that DMS said it would be giving her back her unit, she was surprised.
“That’s the first I have heard of it,” she said. DMS had recently served her with an eviction notice, which Beattie said she hasn’t signed. DMS didn’t not respond to questions about a possible eviction.
For two nights following the fire, Beattie said she and Heddy stayed in a tent at an encampment. She said the experience was triggering.
“I wanted to use,” she said. “I’m not proud of that but I’ve been to rock bottom and I went down that road again. But fortunately I’m older and wiser and said ‘no, I can handle this. I’ve just got to fix it.’ So that’s what I’m doing.”
She is now sleeping on a cot in her neighbour’s spare room.
Firefighters still investigating cause of fire
Beattie, who receives $1,200 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program and said she paid just over $800 a month in rent, doesn’t have tenant insurance. She said she needed to save the $20 a month for other bills and therefore cannot pursue compensation through an insurance company.
However, landlords have their own insurance to recoup costs, including loss of rent, said Hamilton paralegal Lisa Barder, who represents clients at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) but is not involved in this case.
“Shame on them for not giving her another apartment,” Barder said. “They have many other units [across Hamilton]. There’s no reason she should be homeless.”
The landlord’s insurance adjusters will be handling the repairs, said Smith.
As of Monday, the living room, kitchen and dining room remained blanketed in soot and reeking of smoke.
Hamilton’s deputy fire chief Mike Rember said they’re still investigating the cause of the fire.
Beattie said she saw flames come from the area close to an electrical outlet she’d long had issues with. She said she previously reported it to DMS but it was never fixed. She lost documentation of the maintenance request in the fire.
She had stopped using the outlet because a “big spark” would fly whenever she unplugged something.
Smith said DMS has “no record of prior issues related to electrical equipment in the apartment.”
Community has shown ‘pure and utter kindness’
If Beattie can prove she alerted DMS to the outlet needing repairs and the fire did begin there, then they’d be held responsible at the LTB, Barder said.
The landlord is also responsible for ensuring all units have working smoke alarms — Beattie said she didn’t hear one.
Smith said the company conducts regular inspections of smoke detectors.
Barder said if the unit is not “utterly destroyed” Beattie should have the right to resume her tenancy when it’s been cleaned and repaired, and apply for compensation through the LTB.
Another LTB expert, Mississauga-based paralegal Bruce Parsons, said proving the landlord is responsible through negligence is “very difficult to establish” in most cases. He said the landlord wouldn’t be required to provide her with another unit as repairs are being done.
Beattie said she’s been asked by friends if this ordeal has made her lose faith in humanity. Immediately following the fire, as she’s had to fight for housing, she would’ve said yes.
But after an outpouring of support from her community, including a Go Fund Me campaign, she has changed her mind.
“It’s been pure and utter kindness, really,” Beattie said, fighting back tears. “From dog food to clothing to money, from people I haven’t seen in 25 years and people I barely know in the building — it’s just the kindness.”