N.B. town declares homelessness state of emergency — then the province terminated it

Click to play video: 'Rural homelessness worsening in New Brunswick towns'
Rural homelessness worsening in New Brunswick towns
The New Brunswick town of St. Stephen has declared a state of emergency over homelessness after a person died in the cold at a park last week. As Heidi Petracek explains, more people are living in dire conditions, and the province is being blamed – Dec 7, 2023

What constitutes a state of emergency?

For a small New Brunswick community, it’s dozens of residents without a home, a lack of shelter and social services, and the death of a man.

But for the provincial government, no state of emergency exists.

The Minister of Public Safety, Kris Austin, terminated St. Stephen’s local state of emergency just two days after the municipality voted unanimously to declare it.

Austin acknowledges homelessness is a “serious problem,” however, and promised cancelling the declaration is “in no way meant to hinder ongoing work.”

Town makes declaration

The Municipal District of St. Stephen declared the local state of emergency over the homelessness crisis during an emergency meeting Monday night.

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“The failure of the government of New Brunswick to provide adequate housing and social services to citizens affected by homelessness has resulted in deterioration of quality of life within our community,” Mayor Allan MacEachern read during the meeting.

The declaration stated there are about 70 people who are homeless in a community of approximately 4,150, and that “a resident of a public space” died last week, “a situation which will only become more likely” as winter sets in.

The mayor said he hoped the declaration would push the province to step in and finally secure land for a shelter. As well, the municipal council called on the province to provide resources, and even evacuate citizens as necessary to offer proper care.

Click to play video: 'N.B. opposition say province not doing enough to address homelessness'
N.B. opposition say province not doing enough to address homelessness

Public Safety minister disagrees

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The following day, Austin wrote a letter to the mayor, saying he wanted proof and data that warranted the state of emergency. He went on to say that such declarations, under the Emergency Measures Act, are meant to be used during natural disasters like floods and storms, or security events.

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“I accept that homelessness is a serious problem, not only for homeless persons but for their community and society,” Austin wrote. “I also appreciate, as you must, that it is a complex problem, and a problem on which the Government of New Brunswick has directed considerable focus.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, he said the declaration was frivolous.

“People die all the time in car accidents. We don’t (call) a state of emergency over vehicles on the road,” he said.

MacEachern said those comments lacked compassion and downplayed the seriousness of the situation.

Click to play video: 'N.B. town declares state of local emergency over homelessness'
N.B. town declares state of local emergency over homelessness

Province terminates state of emergency

As expected, Austin terminated the state of emergency on Wednesday.

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In a statement, the minister said there is “no question that homelessness is a serious problem” in New Brunswick and the country as a whole, but that a state of emergency is an “extraordinary measure” to be used in certain situations.

“A State of Emergency is a legal tool that has the power to override the rights of persons and companies, like seizing private property. It should only be used as a very last resort and have clearly defined outcomes that only a State of Emergency can solve,” he wrote.

“Contrary to the belief of some, a State of Emergency would offer no additional value in ending the homelessness problem in St. Stephen.”

The statement went on to say that different levels of government have worked together during past “issues” that didn’t need a state of emergency, including the 2014 Moncton shooting, the 2017 ice storm and the 2018 and 2019 spring floods.

Not meant to ‘hinder ongoing work’

Austin went on to say that terminating the state of emergency will not “hinder ongoing work” to provide social services

Housing Minister, Jill Green, told reporters this week that the province has considered at least 20 properties for a permanent shelter, but none was suitable. She said she hoped to “settle on a property very, very quickly.”

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But the mayor of St. Stephen says they’re not waiting.

MacEachern has a goal of having everyone indoors by this weekend, by creating a 24-hour drop-in warming centre.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces, but we’re going to do our very best. We may need some volunteers out there to help,” he said.

“The amount of numbers of support I’ve seen — even if we get a handful of that, we’ll be doing well. I don’t doubt the community has already stepped up and will continue to step up.”

This is a temporary measure though. The issue of homelessness, especially in rural and small communities is something that needs to be addressed, he said.

“This is reality. We’re all going to get those calls (about a death) if we do not all move forward — not just St. Stephen, it’s province wide, it’s country wide.”

— with files from Global News’ Nathalie Sturgeon and The Canadian Press 

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