A 76-year-old Sidney woman who collects empty cans to supplement her pension faces eviction for failing to pay back rent on income from those cans, but has not yet said whether she will pay up because her landlords don’t deserve it — at least in her mind.
Zora Hlevnjak, who has been a familiar figure in Sidney for years seen collecting cans, faces eviction on Jan. 21 from her subsidized housing unit because of failure to pay $1,087 for three month’s worth of rent following a rent increase. She had previously paid $524 per month under the terms of provincially subsidized housing, but now faces a monthly bill of $887.
Tim O’Brien, who manages Sidney’s Wakefield Manor where Hlevnjak has been living since 2004, said the woman’s rent rose after she started to report her “proper income” as per terms of provincially subsidized housing. Beacon Community Services owns Wakefield Manor, which has been operating as a subsidizing housing facility since its opening 30 years ago.
“Every tenant in a subsidized building like Wakefield Manor pays 30 per cent of their income towards rent, which is the affordable standard throughout the province,” he said. “We didn’t raise the rent. She just started to report her proper income.”
O’Brien said it is a requirement of all tenants in provincially subsidized housing to provide income tax statements, bank statements, and Service Canada statements each year to establish the 30 per cent threshold.
That happened earlier this fall, eventually leading to the rent increase.
O’Brien said Hlevnjak can stay her in her apartment if she makes up the outstanding rent. “Please understand – it’s not my choice to evict her,” he said. “I don’t want to evict her. We are not in the eviction business. We are in the accommodation business, helping and serving those who are less fortunate and who require subsidized housing. All that is happening here is that she is refusing to pay her 30 per cent of income as defined by the rules that we are governed by.”
All Hlevnjak needs to do to stay in her apartment is to pay the outstanding rent and pay the higher amount in the future, said O’Brien. “That is what my preference would be.”
He later described Hlevnjak as a “smart” and “wonderful lady” notwithstanding her appearance as a homeless person. “Many residents in Sidney believe that she lives on the streets,” he said. “We brought her off the streets in 2004.”
Hlevnjak said over the course of two interviews that sometimes veered off direction, she is aware of the 30-per-cent threshold and the reporting requirement, but does not think she should pay the difference, because she does not think of the money she made by collecting cans as income. Hlevnjak also receives donations of money and food from passersby.
“I knew [the rules], but my mind doesn’t allow me to accept to pay [back-rent] from empties and from people that give me money for food,” she said. “I didn’t spend it and I don’t even have that money. I sent it to my people.”
Hlevnjak said she gets about $1,500 from the federal government through various pensions, but also routinely sends money including money collected from cans to extended family members in Croatia, where she was born in 1943 and lived until she came to Canada in the 1966. Hlevnjak said she has been sending money to Croatia every year since.
“That [sending money to Croatia] is my joy for my poor people,” said Hlevnjak, who has no immediate relatives in Canada. Previous recipients include her now-dead older sister and now-dead brother, as well as their respective children and grand-children. So how much money did she send the last time in December of 2019?
“I think $5,000 or something — all that I had,” she said. “The pension, the people’s money that they gave me for food, the money I made on empties.”
Why does she keep sending money to Croatia? “Because they are poor,” she said.
When an accompanying friend reminded Hlevnjak of her current situation and suggested she should start looking after herself rather than others in a distant country, Hlevnjak acknowledged those comments, but also struck a note of defiance with a moralistic argument.
“But housing didn’t deserve that [outstanding] money,” she said. “I’m not sorry for [paying] $524 or $10 more like the increase last year, but why now? Just because of the gifts that people gave to me?” She also noted that she worked very hard to make the money off cans.
Hlevnjak said she believed that her landlords don’t deserve the money, because they did not work hard enough for it and the money received from collecting cans and donations ultimately belong to her. “They didn’t work hard for it,” she said. “It was [a] gift for me.”
Hlevnjak blames herself for her situation. “I stupidly put in bank because I was afraid of fire and thieves,” she said.
She later added that she was hoarding money in her apartment for two to three months before depositing it.
This said, Hlevnjak also tried to chase away any impression that she was benefiting of the money that she received through donations and can collections. “I didn’t even spent five cents on my birthday,” said Hlevnjak, whose clothing hardly suggests a life in the lap of luxury. She also acknowledged that she has trouble remembering things and admits to feeling stressed by the situation.
But her definant tone and decision to seek legal support also suggests the issue is far from settled.
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