St. Thomas, Ont. — Ceiling bulbs were burnt out or missing, so the two inspectors powered the flashlights on their phones as they stepped inside the basement of Walnut Manor.
Inside, they would discover things worse than the stench of urine in the front hall or the mountain of rotting garbage in the shed.
The building was home to 26 adults, some of them with complex needs. They included a person with significant vision impairment and a double amputee.
People paid to live at Walnut Manor because there was nowhere else to go. They were not sick enough to stay in hospital or rehab and not healthy enough to live alone.
The inspectors pressed the record button on their phones.
They walked toward a pair of chest freezers. One hadn’t worked in at least a month, a staff member said. Thawed bags of corn and carrots had turned black with mould. Dead bugs lined the freezer’s interior seal. An inspector gagged.
“Do you hear that?”
The inspector aimed her camera on the ceiling where a faint, steady squeaking sound echoed.
Nearby, white bread stacked on delivery crates had chew marks along the top of the loaves, inspectors wrote in their notes, copies of which the Toronto Star obtained through a Freedom of Information request. The inspectors found rodent activity all around the property, and later discovered a dead rat in the basement longer than a football.
The camera view widened.
Circular fields of thick mould bloomed from the ceiling in every direction, like a sprawling Jackson Pollock in shades of grey, green and black.
“Oh my god.”
Until last summer, Walnut Manor was part of a growing chain of for-profit Supportive Living facilities run by Hamilton entrepreneur Vishal Chityal. Across Ontario, he runs group homes for adults including those with addictions and mental health issues, as well as seniors who can’t get into long-term care.
Only weeks before Walnut Manor was shut down in July 2021 for unsafe living conditions, a group of new residents had been shuttled there from another of Chityal’s homes in the Niagara Region where a fire had caused significant damage.
As homeless shelters, hospitals and rehabilitation centres across Ontario run out of room and affordable housing options start with years-long wait-lists, Chityal’s unlicensed facilities have become increasingly popular places to park marginalized people.
In municipalities across southern Ontario, firefighters, city officials, social workers and politicians say where Chityal’s homes open, trouble follows.
They say he is cashing in on a regulatory grey zone where no one is in charge of proactively making sure these facilities provide a minimum standard of care to an ever-growing number of at-risk residents.
Residents and their families say they live in squalor, and Chityal’s company directly collects residents’ government assistance cheques, leaving them little at the end of the month.
The Ontario Disability Support Program, which Chityal said the majority of his residents receive, pays landlords directly. For each resident, Chityal collects anywhere from $745 to $1,095 monthly, depending on the region they’re living in. Those amounts will soon increase alongside the government’s five per cent hike to its income support payments.
Chityal said his mission is to create affordable housing that helps residents “feel human again.”
He said he has deep empathy for the indignities they face. Nearly 20 years ago, he said, he dug his way out of homelessness to create what he calls the largest chain of supportive living facilities in the province.
“Our demographic now is anybody who falls through the cracks in the system,” he said.
The website for Chityal’s SupportiveLiving.ca chain, with locations in the areas of London, Niagara and Huron East, promises affordable living with the shortest wait-lists in the industry.
Chityal said his safe and stable homes protect vulnerable residents from predators.
Current and former Members of Provincial Parliament agree that residents need protecting.
Since 2017, Niagara-Centre MPPs have tried to pass a private members’ bill that would require homes like Chityal’s be provincially licensed and subject to proactive inspections. The proposed regulations would also establish a complaints process and fines for non-compliant operators.
“Without regulations, these unlicensed facilities will continue to thrive to the detriment of residents and their families,” one MPP warned the health minister in a 2018 letter.
Their proposed bills have failed to get past second reading three times, despite support from 44 municipalities that came forward with similar concerns about the unlicensed homes.
MPP Jeff Burch, whose riding includes the cities of Welland, Port Colborne and Thorold, plans to reintroduce the bill this fall when the House returns from its recess on Oct. 25. He and his predecessor, former MPP Cindy Forster, author of the 2018 warning letter, have singled out Chityal in public presentations at Queen’s Park.
“When the attention is put on him, he wants to appear that he is co-operating,” said Burch, who alleges Chityal is profiting “on the backs of vulnerable residents.”
It’s fallen to under-resourced municipalities and agencies to monitor these kinds of group homes. At least two cities in which Chityal has operated have created their own licensing requirements, while others rely on fire and public health departments.
A company of Chityal’s that owns SupportiveLiving.ca homes has racked up $70,000 in fines in the Niagara Region since 2012. The majority of fines stem from fire code convictions, according to court records and a court manager. The company — 1825081 Ontario Inc. — has defaulted on nearly $30,000 of the fines it owed, a court record shows.
Chityal said some convictions were “reprisals” by fire officials after he challenged their regulation of his homes. As for the defaulted fines, he said “that is something that our finance department handles, I personally cannot personally verify any of this information.”
Supportive Living is one of the foremost housing providers in the group home sector, Chityal said, and has earned a good reputation. “If we were that bad, the houses would be empty.”
He said his homes are already “stringently regulated by building departments, health departments, fire departments.” While he previously said he welcomed Burch’s efforts to regulate the supported living industry, he warns if it’s not done thoughtfully, for-profit providers will close. “It’s only going to compound the homelessness crisis,” he said. “That will be a fire no one can put out.”
Local agencies’ policing powers are often limited or reactionary, discovering problems that have already been allowed to fester.
On July 7, 2021, Southwestern Public Health ordered that residents be removed from Walnut Manor, declaring the building “unfit” and “unsafe.”
The health inspectors found more than mould, contaminated food and rats in the home, according to their notes.
They found soiled mattresses and furniture. Bedbugs. A broken water heater that hadn’t worked in weeks. One tenant told inspectors he hadn’t showered because there was no cold water.
They counted 26 residents, more than double the number public health said Walnut Manor was approved to house.
There is no central registry that shows how many unlicensed supportive living facilities operate in Ontario or where they are. In Niagara alone, Burch’s office counted 19 group homes “that we know of,” he said.
Most were run by Chityal, Burch said.
Sites Chityal has owned or operated include three in Port Colborne, three in Niagara Falls, two in St. Catharines, one in Belleville, Walnut Manor in St. Thomas and one called Wilson House in Huron County that Chityal’s website describes as a “another jewel in our Western division.” It includes a “ward” room that sleeps three residents. Chityal said the room is spacious.
In an interview, Chityal said he is “not at liberty” to confirm the total number, names or locations of the facilities he owns or operates “to protect the privacy of our investors and residents.”
He said demand has doubled since the start of the pandemic.
Over the first five months of 2022, he received nearly 900 applications.
Unlike retirement or long-term care homes, Chityal’s facilities have no wait-lists. He said they “were able to scale up our operations” during the pandemic.
In the last five years, Chityal said, he is housing more residents under age 55, including those with mental health challenges and people recovering from addictions.
Despite the name Supportive Living, Chityal said his facilities are not care homes and should not be compared to them. The company’s mandate, he said, “is to provide safe and affordable housing and boarding services.”
In a promotional video, however, Supportive Living advertises itself as “more than just housing.”
“We offer housing with individualized supports that are needed to break the cycle of hospitalization, homelessness and incarceration,” the video says, adding that it offers “a full continuum of care such as medication management, social supports and psychiatric services.”
The company’s website promises residents the “highest standards” of living, including three meals plus refreshments “throughout the day,” amenities and assistance with laundry and housekeeping.
Eight former residents, family members and neighbours of those who have lived in Chityal’s homes in four different cities since 2015 say such standards don’t exist. They expressed similar concerns about personal safety, regular food shortages, infestations of bed bugs and rodents, cleanliness, and inadequate staffing.
Richard Barry, a retired computer sales technician, was recovering from a stroke in a rehab centre when he received two weeks’ notice to find a new place to live, his daughter Karen said.
He could no longer climb the stairs to his apartment. Long-term care homes had a years-long wait-list.
“We were all scrambling,” Karen said. She said the Local Health Integration Network recommended the SupportiveLiving.ca facility as an option, but “gave no warning flags about Walnut Manor. I guess I didn’t think at the time they would provide us with an unlicensed option. I didn’t know there were unlicensed options.”
Karen found a website by local journalist Ian McCallum that highlighted concerns about the facility’s living conditions but she figured the government agency would not suggest her dad move to Walnut Manor if these issues hadn’t been corrected.
Soon after he moved in, the phone calls from her dad started.
“There were food shortages. There was never fresh milk and rarely any fresh fruit or vegetables. The posted menu was not what was served. There was no hot water and then there was no cold water,” Karen recalled.
“I just couldn’t understand. It sounded so good on the website. The pictures looked so good.”
An official from the health network — now called Home and Community Care Support Services — would not comment on the specifics of Barry’s case but said generally that the service may inform a patient about various housing options, though it does not place anyone in such supportive housing.
The quality and quantity of food was a common complaint among residents of Chityal’s homes.
At Lakeside Terrace in Port Colborne, residents Gerald Gibbons and his wife Lucille Stewart took photos of the rotten banana and grey-tinged corn they received from staff — one of many problems the couple documented, including mould and bed bugs.
When Gerald’s sister complained on his behalf, staff members told her Chityal had resolved the issues. Chityal told the Star that Gerald was a problematic resident who provided “inaccurate information.”
In 2014, facing questions by local media about the food served at Walnut Manor, Chityal said his homes have a “dietitian-approved menu” and that they “always strive to provide the best we can within the budget.”
In a June interview with the Star, he defended the homes’ reliance on powdered milk, saying it is used in various care settings. “The federal government has revamped the prison system and they only use powdered milk,” he said.
“If it’s good enough for our governmental institutions, it should be good enough for us.”
Christine Clark Lafleur, executive director of the non-profit Port Cares in Port Colborne, said her organization’s food bank has regularly seen Chityal’s residents “come to us for meals because he wasn’t providing enough food.”
“It’s exploitation,” Clark Lafleur said of Chityal’s model of supportive living. “I’ll make no bones about it.”
Chityal said residents frequent the food bank in Port Colborne because they’re bored, not hungry. “It’s a very small town,” he said. “There’s nothing else to do.”
Food at Supportive Living homes is made by a staff member, and in some facilities, there were reports of only one on duty at a time. That employee was responsible for making breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with cleaning rooms and common areas.
Chityal told the Toronto Star his homes do not have staffing ratios based on resident numbers, and he said staffing is sufficient.
For Karen Barry, the food and staffing issues are indicative of larger problems at Chityal’s homes that put the residents at risk.
“They’re literally warehousing human beings.”
Chityal said his home did nothing wrong and that Karen Barry was difficult to please.
Richard Barry lived in the home for seven months until his daughter moved him out in the spring of 2018 — three years before inspectors started documenting the health and safety hazards that would shut the place down.
His time inside Walnut Manor haunted him until his death in March 2020, his daughter said.
“It hurt him to not be able to help the other people still living there after he left,” she said. “He was disgusted by it.”
While Richard Chamberlain slept, one of his new neighbours hauled a mattress outside on a late November night and lit it on fire, torching a tree and coating his hatchback in ashes.
It wasn’t the first time there were concerns about the residents of the two-storey building at 309 Beatrice St. in Welland, in what used to be a convent before it was sold to one of Chityal’s numbered companies.
Fire trucks and police were regularly called to Beatrice Manor. Neighbours say there were violent fights, screaming in the middle of the night and food stolen from nearby houses, including a frozen turkey that was later found beneath a resident’s bed.
In early December 2015, Chamberlain and other homeowners filed into city hall to demand answers about why their new neighbours seemed to be in regular distress.
At the council meeting, they met the man in charge of the group home.
As Chityal tells it, he was sitting in a Port Colborne coffee shop with a loonie to his name when he saw a classified ad that would change his life.
He had been left with nothing following a divorce, forcing him to couch surf or sleep outdoors.
The man who posted the ad owned a derelict three-unit apartment complex east of the shipping canal that cuts the city in two.
Chityal, known to locals as Charlie Duke, pitched the man on a work-to-own agreement that would involve renovating the building and turning it into a rooming house.
Chityal said he created 13 rooms, furnished them with materials he repurposed on-site and other pieces he collected from the curb on garbage days. He found 13 low-income tenants.
“There was such a demand for affordable housing,” Chityal said.
Chityal’s deal with the property owner allowed him to take over the title. Soon, word got out that an investor was willing to take over rooming houses or abandoned properties. Over the next few years, he had created and rented 200 rooms across the region.
In 2006, he launched his first “supportive living” group home in Welland.
Inside Welland city hall in December 2015, where neighbours raised concern over the mattress fire, Chityal assured that his residents were “harmless” and “quite childlike in their mentality.” He explained a resident was burning “insects.”
Chamberlain said he and other neighbours watched a pest-control company pull up to the former convent shortly after the fire and remove more than a dozen mattresses. Another van arrived with a delivery of new mattresses.
After the fire, Chamberlain remembers a young woman from the house who slept on the grass outside the facility, growling like an animal and wearing only soiled underwear.
He said he pleaded with staff to get her help, to at least check her for ticks known to populate the area.
Days passed. No one came. When she turned the doorknob to his house and stepped inside, he called police, thinking they could help. They offered to charge her with trespassing. That’s not the kind of help he had in mind.
“Isn’t someone responsible for her?” Chamberlain asked.
The officers shook their heads.
In small cities and towns where most people know one another from Saturday mornings on the soccer field or Sunday service, the few faces that some residents in Chityal’s for-profit group homes see with any regularity belong to the local firefighters.
On June 16, 2021, Port Colborne firefighters responded to an early-morning blaze at a Supportive Living facility called Humberstone Manor, a former funeral home. None of the 22 residents were injured but all needed a new place to live.
The city arranged a bus to shepherd the residents to a local motel but as they were ready to go, one of Chityal’s staff members arrived and ordered the residents off the bus, fire chief Scott Lawson told the Star.
Under the staff member’s direction, at least seven were shuttled two and a half hours away to Walnut Manor in St. Thomas, which had its own porch fire a month earlier, though the damage was much less extensive.
Two days after the residents were relocated, Kim Destun, chief fire prevention officer for St. Thomas, and a Fire Marshal’s representative arrived at Walnut Manor to run an emergency fire drill.
Destun said they watched as two staff members struggled to help 26 people, some using walkers and wheelchairs, leave the house through the front door since the back porch was still blocked off with caution tape from the May fire.
The pair of fire officials were the first to venture into the basement, where they discovered piles of garbage, rodent activity and the ceiling mould. Bed bugs bit them all over.
Public health inspectors, first called to investigate complaints of rats around the Manor’s property, would comb through the home during multiple inspections over four weeks, finding rampant health hazards.
Chityal disputes many of the health inspectors’ findings. He said the home was not over capacity. A chest freezer, which inspectors noted held rotten food and had been broken for a month, was “inherited from the previous owner and (was) never in use during our entire time operating the home,” according to Chityal.
He said Walnut Manor had “a comprehensive program for pest control” and blamed the presence of rats on the city of St. Thomas’s own rodent problem. He called the mould that made inspectors shudder “surface mildew,” and said steps were taken to fix it.
He said it is a “completely false statement” that there was no working cold water in the building, saying it might have been shut off for a few hours while repairs were being done.
City building inspectors raised concern with the structural integrity of the corner of the building where the fire occurred in May. The city issued an order to immediately repair or replace the water heater and remove standing water in the mechanical room.
The public health inspectors also issued orders to Chityal, some of them repeatedly over the course of their inspections. They told him twice to clean the mould and fix the basement lighting, and three times to address rodent activity.
On July 7, 2021, officials closed the home. Southwestern Public Health worked with more than 10 agencies, including police, fire and social services staff to start relocating 26 Walnut Manor residents with a range of physical and mental health challenges to homes.
Walnut Manor was “an unfit, unsafe environment for living, and not at the standard expected of a supportive living facility,” said Peter Heywood, the health unit’s director of environmental health at the time, in an interview with the Star. “Each of these individuals deserves to live in a home that is healthy and safe.”
Chityal said the conditions inside Walnut Manor deteriorated because staff didn’t tell him about the home’s mounting problems, and that he needed more time to find reliable workers during the pandemic.
He said it was an isolated incident.
In Welland, Fire Chief Adam Eckhart said 30 per cent of his resources in 2020 went to responding to calls at homes run by a handful of private operators, including Chityal.
Eckhart viewed Chityal as an operator of a “care occupancy” — a legal designation that requires sprinkler systems in care settings where mental or physical challenges would prevent a majority of residents from evacuating without help during an emergency.
Chityal protested the designation, arguing his residents don’t fit that bill.
After the case went to the Ontario Fire Safety Commission, they settled.
“A lot of the things the fire department was asking for we already had in place,” Chityal said. “Most of my facilities were already in compliance.”
All residents are vetted for mobility, Chityal said. “Can they evacuate without assistance? That’s a prerequisite for all our housing. We do have residents with mobility issues. We don’t discriminate. But when individuals can’t live there safely anymore, we rehouse. We’ve built great relationships with other operators who do have vulnerable occupancy premises.”
Chityal was not required to install a sprinkler, but the settlement outlined several other fire-safety measures that had to be implemented in his homes by May 2021.
The work he agreed to do was not done at the time.
In a Welland court this summer, a lawyer pleaded guilty on behalf of a Chityal-directed numbered company that owns Beatrice Manor. The lawyer blamed a contractor for misreading the terms of the settlement.
Diana Zlomislic is an investigative reporter for the Star. Email her at email@example.com