Man who died in Saint John encampment fire remembered as a ‘sweet person’

Click to play video: 'Advocates helping Maritime tent encampment residents struggling to keep up with demand'
Advocates helping Maritime tent encampment residents struggling to keep up with demand
WATCH: A 44-year-old man has died following a fire at a tent encampment in Saint John. As the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to rise across the region, advocates say they’re run of their feet trying to keep people alive. Nathalie Sturgeon reports. – Jan 8, 2024

After the death of an unhoused man in New Brunswick over the weekend, front-line advocates are ramping up their calls for better supports for those living on the streets.

A fire broke out at an encampment in Saint John Saturday, and one man was rushed to hospital with severe burns. After being transported out-of-province for medical treatment, he succumbed to his injuries Sunday.

On Monday, police identified the victim as 44-year-old Peter Evan Ralph McArthur. According to his obituary, he is survived by his parents, his brother, two nieces, and his aunt.

“Free at last, son,” the obituary read.

Johanne McCullough, a volunteer with Street Team SJ, said the group has visited the encampment under the viaduct near Paradise Row three times a week.

She said the team responded to the fire Saturday and knew McArthur very well, having worked with him for about a year and a half.

Story continues below advertisement

“(He was a) very nice, very kind man. Always had a hug ready for anyone,” she said. “Just a very, very sweet person. All of our teams are completely heartbroken over it.”

A 44-year-old man died after a fire at a homeless encampment in Saint John over the weekend. Nathalie Sturgeon/Global News

McCullough said it’s “very common” to see things like candles, butane burners, propane and generators at encampment sites, as people are trying their best to keep warm while living outside.

“We’ve cautioned against bringing any kind of fuel into their tent, and if they are going to use candles, we want them to be careful with it,” she said. “But it is always a risk.”

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

McCullough said it’s important to remember that not everyone who is unhoused is affected by drug use or mental illness. “Some of them have jobs and they live in tents,” she said. “They go to work.”

Story continues below advertisement

Second death this winter

McArthur is at least the second unhoused person to die in New Brunswick this winter. In early December, a man died in a public space in St. Stephen, prompting the municipality to declare a state of emergency — which the province promptly rescinded.

And in neighbouring Nova Scotia, a man living in an encampment in Halifax died last month after experiencing medical distress.

According to recent numbers from the Saint John Human Development Council, the number of people experiencing absolute homelessness in New Brunswick’s three major cities more than doubled between 2021 and 2023. Absolute homelessness refers to individuals living in the street or in emergency shelters.

Greg Bishop, the senior director at the Human Development Council, said this weekend’s incident was “tragic” and should have been preventable.

As the winter draws on and homelessness continues to rise, Bishop is concerned about the possibility of future tragedies as people struggle to stay warm.

“This is a real risk. Last week, there was another individual who lost a number of their digits to frostbite,” he said.

“This is kind of early into our winter season, so it would probably be a safe assumption to suggest that if we have this many people who are still outdoors, that this is one of the possibilities.”

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'Homeless population doubles in N.B. cities over two years'
Homeless population doubles in N.B. cities over two years

Bishop acknowledged the problem is “complicated,” but said the province needs to reduce the inflow of unhoused people — those who are falling into homelessness.

“We certainly have prevention measures and programs available, but we need to scale those up,” he said. “We just need to stop people from coming into homelessness in the first place.”

And more housing, especially supportive housing options, are needed for those already experiencing homelessness, he said. “We’ve got to focus on the outflow, and we’ve got to focus on the inflow.”

Julie Dingwell, executive director of Avenue B Harm Reduction in Saint John, agreed that more is needed. She said she was “very saddened” to hear of McArthur’s death.

“It speaks to the need for us really ramping up services here, really doing something so that people aren’t in tents and trying to keep warm,” she said.

Story continues below advertisement

“How do we make life so much better and easier for people that are living on the margins?”

She said organizations like hers are “run off our feet” trying to keep people safe, and they have to fundraise more than they ever had to.

“Nobody is sending us thousands of dollars to go buy tents and sleeping bags and figure out how to keep people warm,” said Dingwell.

As the issue of homelessness becomes more visible, people may try to cast blame on unhoused people for being in the situation they’re in, but Dingwell said that’s unfair. Decades of government inaction is a big part of the problem, she said.

“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I think I’d like to be homeless and go live in a tent and freeze to death in the winter and sweat to death in the summer,'” she said.

“Nobody wants that. But we’ve had three levels of governments that, over the decades, have successively stopped building housing.

“We’ve had a federal government and a provincial government that totally washed their hands of doing this, and now we’re blaming the homeless for being homeless.”

She questioned why the provincial government is running surpluses as people are living and dying on the streets.

Story continues below advertisement

“We’re working to try to keep people alive in many ways,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to be worried that they’re going to burn to death in a tent.”

‘We need housing’

In a statement, Rebecca Howland, the spokesperson for New Brunswick’s Department of Social Development, said McArthur’s death was a tragedy.

“The Department of Social Development wishes to express sincere condolences to relatives and friends of the deceased,” she said.

“The province continues to focus on reducing chronic homelessness in New Brunswick and continues to engage with stakeholders at all levels of government and in the community.”

Howland said an out-of-the-cold shelter opened on Somerset Street in Saint John in December, and “capacity wasn’t an issue this past weekend.”

She also noted that there are nine permanent emergency shelters across the province that provide a total of 301 beds, and the province has the capacity to increase the number of beds by 200 across the system to react to increased need in the colder months.

But Dingwell said unhoused people might not want to stay in shelters for a variety of reasons, and what’s most needed is permanent, affordable housing.

“Shelters aren’t always the answer,” she said. “We need housing. We need real housing where people get to lay their head at night, and be able to access the services they need that would really make their life better.”

Story continues below advertisement

Saint John Coun. David Hickey renewed calls for the province to step up on housing during a council meeting Monday evening.

“Our neighbourhoods have become the frontlines of the housing crisis. There is no dignity in homelessness, neither for the folks living in it, nor the neighbourhoods they occupy,” he said.

“We need consistent planning, and our job is to keep advocating and support where we can.”

Sponsored content