The mayor of a New Brunswick municipality that declared a state of emergency due to unprecedented levels of homelessness — and a recent death of an unhoused person — says he was taken aback by dismissive comments on the matter from a provincial minister.
New Brunswick’s minister of public safety, Kris Austin, said Tuesday that the state of emergency declared by the municipality of St. Stephen is frivolous and disappointing. “People die all the time in car accidents. We don’t (call) a state of emergency over vehicles on the road,” he said.
Austin’s comments, St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern said, lack compassion and downplay the seriousness of the situation in the small community.
“I don’t like his choice of words. I don’t appreciate that. There’s no compassion there,” MacEachern said in an interview Wednesday.
The state of emergency declaration accuses the provincial government of failing to provide housing and social services to the area, where 70 people are homeless in a community of about 4,150. It says “a resident of a public space” died last week, “a situation which will only become more likely” as winter sets in.
St. Stephen RCMP Sgt. Scott MacKenzie confirmed police responded to a 41-year-old man in need of medical attention in St. Stephen around 3 a.m. on Dec. 2. The man was transported to hospital, where he died several hours later. MacKenzie would not say if the man was experiencing homelessness.
Austin on Wednesday repeated his assertion that the situation in St. Stephen does not warrant a state of emergency, which he described in a statement as “an extraordinary measure that is meant to be used during floods, ice storms and security events.”
MacEachern said the municipality had no choice but to issue the declaration and pressure the government to use its budgetary surplus to help fund shelter.
“We need to deal with the urgency of this, this is an emergency,” he said of people sleeping outdoors as the temperature dips.
Austin said there is no question that homelessness is a serious concern in the province, but “the problem is complex and defies quick or easy solutions.” He also said the state of emergency would do nothing to help those who are homeless in the area.
MacEachern disputes this. He said that after the declaration was made, a local community housing organization came forward and said it would now be able to act more swiftly.
Austin said Tuesday that federal, provincial and municipal governments have a role in addressing homelessness. The minister accused MacEachern of “trying to skirt that responsibility” and suggested the town offer a warming shelter to its homeless population.
In response, the mayor said a local homelessness committee, of which he is part, has been working for weeks to prepare a property for temporary shelters, a move that was approved by council. Then recently, MacEachern said, the province informed the municipality that “the property is not suitable, with no reasoning for why it’s not suitable.”
This move has temporarily halted the project, MacEachern said.
New Brunswick government representatives did not respond Wednesday to questions about the property.
MacEachern said he’s frustrated by the lack of support from the province. “We municipalities don’t have the tool box or the budget needed to deal with these issues,” he said.
The council’s declaration does not call out Austin, but it asks five other ministers for immediate help, including the province’s education minister for buses if they become necessary in response to the emergency alert. The declaration gives the province permission to “provide for the evacuation of citizens at risk of exposure, illness, and death to a location where the adequate care and protection can be provided.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023.