When the concrete gets cold at night, there are few places left in New Brunswick’s big cities for those experiencing homelessness to sleep.
John-Paul Arseneault, 53, says he has been living rough for more than a year.
“I guess I am where I put myself in life right now, and it’s not a great place,” he said.
Living outdoors is never pleasant, but winter months make it dreadful.
“The concrete gets kind of cold at night. Not so many grassy knolls to lay upon,” Arseneault said during a recent interview at the Riverstone Recovery Centre in Fredericton.
Arseneault said he tries to find shelter each night, out of the rain, out of the snow. But with so many people living on the streets, “all the good spots have kind of disappeared.” So, he spends many of his nights walking around, waiting for daylight. At the time of the interview, he was going on his third day without sleep.
He said there are many things he could blame in life for his situation: a past relationship, addictions. But ultimately, he said, it comes down to a few wrong choices.
“I’m just kind of lost for words right now,” Arseneault said. “I don’t know really how to word it, but I don’t think I did anything that bad in life to put myself where I am right now.”
Arseneault is one of hundreds of New Brunswickers sleeping outside as the winter creeps in. Shelters in the province’s three major cities are often full, and those who use substances often aren’t allowed in. Experts say they’re concerned for people’s well-being – two people have already died outside in the past weeks.
Having a roof over his head would be life-changing for Arseneault. “Hopefully things will get better for me and I’ll be able to turn around and help somebody, you know?”
As for those in positions of power, “try 48 hours in our shoes,” Arseneault said.
Dr. Sara Davidson, director of the River Stone Recovery Centre in Fredericton, said people “are doing everything they can to get by and stay safe and stay alive.”
“The face of homelessness is young people, old people, people with severe mental health issues, people who have severe physical challenges,” Davidson said.
People are “experiencing stigma in many spheres that now are also living without even the roof over their head,” she added.
The face of homelessness, she said, is also people who use substances to get by. A common misconception is that people become homeless because of addiction, but Davidson said that’s rarely the case.
“They lose their housing, and then the only comfort and in some cases, the only things that will keep them awake or alert or not feeling hunger in their belly, is when they use drugs on the street.”
According to the Human Development Council (HDC), there are 560 unhoused people living outside in the province’s three major cities. Of those, 433 are chronically homeless – sleeping outside for more than six months.
However, that data is compiled from the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System and the By Names List, which may not accurately reflect the situation.
Advocates estimate there are more than 1,100 people who are homeless across cities in New Brunswick. Those numbers also don’t take into consideration those who are precariously housed, who are couch surfing or finding other means of shelter. Some say the real number could be in the thousands.
Three cities in crisis
In October, there were 199 people recorded as homeless in Fredericton according to the Human Development Council. An online dashboard showed nearly 150 of those people were chronically homeless – meaning they’re living rough for longer than six months.
Warren Maddox, the executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters, said right now about 120 people are sleeping on shelter beds in Fredericton, but dozens more remain outside. He said he expects to see more people out on the streets as the city removes its cap on rent at the end of December.
Maddox said some people will choose to sleep in a tent as opposed to shelters, which don’t allow substance use.
“There will be a number of them that simply will not come in because they don’t want to follow rules, or they are unable to for paranoia reasons. You know, some are so distrustful of the system that they just can’t do it,” he said.
“Our concern has been for years that there’s not a robust enough system within mental health to deal with the issues that we’re seeing every day, inside the shelter and out.”
He said when front-line workers don’t know the triggers for a person who is living rough, it is difficult to find them housing.
“The landlord isn’t wild about taking someone that doesn’t have a proper support mechanism behind them,” Maddox said.
Sara Davidson said people “are doing the best they can with what they have, but they keep getting pushed to the margins.”
She said she has never met a person that wants to stay outside.
“Very often it’s that there’s no housing option for them that meets them where they’re at.”
Not being able to safely use substances inside Fredericton shelters and other temporary housing options, she said, is another factor.
“The type of housing needed for people who have been chronically homeless, and those that will acknowledge that not everyone can abstain from drugs — and they shouldn’t have to in order to deserve housing,” Davidson said.
“We need specialized housing and that doesn’t exist.“
There were 133 people registered as homeless in Saint John in October, the majority of whom were chronically homeless according to the HDC. Shelters there were at 94 per cent capacity for the month, it said, with nearly 50 people known to be sleeping outdoors.
But Julie Dingwell of Avenue B Harm Reduction said front-line workers estimate the number of people without housing in Saint John was closer to 400 as December started.
The situation is unacceptable, she said.
“Winter comes every year, same time. And so why are we doing this every year at the end of November, we’re saying, ‘Oh gee, we better do something?’”
Dingwell believes not enough money is being invested into housing vulnerable citizens in New Brunswick — a province that recorded a record surplus of $739 million this past fiscal year.
“What makes it OK for people to be out on the street, while our government is sitting on a huge surplus?”
On Nov. 21, police in Saint John confirmed the death of 35-year-old Cody Bartlett, who had previously been reported missing. He was found just before 8 a.m. that Monday, in a tent in a wooded area behind the city’s Lou Murphy Park.
Mondays are gloomy days for those working on the front lines.
“We hate to come to work on Mondays, because we always have to try to think about ‘who did we lose over the weekend,’” Dingwell said.
“Generally, we’re losing somebody a week.”
“These people belong to somebody. They have family; they have friends; they may have children; they may have partners.”
The HDC recorded 228 homeless individuals in October in Moncton. Of those, 192 were experiencing chronic homelessness.
Debby Warren, executive director of Ensemble Moncton, said the number of deaths among the city’s homeless population keeps rising.
Ensemble serves as an overdose prevention site and provides clients with resources, but it’s not open 24-7.
“At the end of the day, when the services close, where do those individuals go?” Warren asked.
Last month, 35-year-old Luke Anthony Landry visited Ensemble and staff were able to revive him after an overdose at the site. Warren and her staff tried to find a shelter bed for him that night, to no avail.
Landry died just hours after leaving the charity. His body was found in a public washroom.
“It was with very heavy hearts as my staff saw the individual walk away,” Warren said. “The staff are so dedicated, they all show up every day but I won’t deny that their hearts are pretty heavy.
“And when we don’t have responses from decision-makers that we’ve been pleading with … it feels like they’re forgotten New Brunswickers.”
Warren said things have been getting worse for a long time.
“What you see now is the price of doing nothing or not enough,” she said.
The advocate has been on the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee since its establishment 22 years ago. She said the same issues remain today.
“I don’t think we should be having this conversation today after 22 years,” Warren said. “While this government has its failings, I want to make it clear it’s all previous governments, too.”
She said people need to be taken out of the cycle of poverty. A $600 social assistance allowance, she said, is not nearly enough for people to survive on while working through mental health concerns.
“Someone didn’t wake up today and say, ‘I think the lifestyle I’m going to choose is homelessness and be on substances that are killing me.’ Really. You have to understand that trauma is at the root of addictions,” she said.
“We all make choices in life and we had different coping skills in life, and we all go through life in a different way. Why should we be judging people?”
Expert Sara Davidson said the stigma around addictions plays a role in societies wanting to pretend people aren’t out on the street.
“They just want the problem to go away, but … people don’t go away, people are here — and so they become invisible,” she said.
“It is sad to see people that have such gifts and humour and creativity and resilience be made into something that they’re not because of people’s fear.”
She worries the province will see more deaths of unhoused folks this winter.
“I really hope people give it a deeper think, that they recognize ‘what kind of a culture do we want to create, what kind of a place do we want our kids to grow up in?'” Davidson said.
“Because some of our kids are going to have issues with substance use. Do we want them to be part of a healing and inclusive society that says, ‘We make room for you and we figure out how to help you,’ or one that says, ‘We need to shun you now because you’ve made bad choices?'”
— with files from Global News’ Nathalie Sturgeon, Zack Power and Shelley Steeves
Editor’s note: This story is Part 1 of a three-part series on the homelessness crisis in New Brunswick.