New Brunswick’s homelessness crisis: Housing shouldn’t be ‘deserved,’ expert says

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New Brunswick’s homelessness crisis: Housing shouldn’t be ‘deserved,’ expert says
WATCH: In Part 3 of a series on New Brunswick's homelessness crisis, Global News takes a closer look at the issue of housing, and how access is only part of the solution. One expert says involving people in need should be at the forefront of housing project designs. Nathalie Sturgeon reports. – Dec 9, 2022

As New Brunswick sees record numbers of unhoused people living outdoors, one expert says involving people in need should be at the forefront of housing solutions.

Dr. Sara Davidson, director of the River Stone Recovery Centre in Fredericton, said though homelessness is a complex problem, there are solutions.

“I think to say that something is just unsolvable is giving up in a way that we don’t have to, in a way that would deny the human rights of a lot of people,” she said.

It’s also an expensive problem. But Davidson argues, leaving people unhoused costs much more.

Davidson said the cost of one homeless person each year is “staggering,” with some Canadian studies finding numbers in the tens of thousands of dollars. A 2012 study on the cost of homelessness country-wide estimated between $4.5 and $6 billion were being spent a year on short-term measures to address homelessness.

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“That’s the cost to keep them unhoused,” Davidson said. “That’s the costs in hospital stays, in incarceration, in ER visits, in all of the emergency sides of things.”

With more than 100 unhoused folks in Fredericton alone, that is “a giant amount of money that is being wasted.”

Davidson said the John Howard Society New Brunswick branch recently found that housing a person and providing needed supports led to savings of more than $90,000 annually for the group.

She said while upfront funding is needed for housing, it’s something that’s needed in New Brunswick anyway.

In October, the New Brunswick government announced $100 million to build government-owned public housing for the first time in nearly four decades. The province plans to build 380 units over the next four years, while another $2 million will cover the renovation of 110 unused units. The funding will bring 40 units each to Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton.

At the time, executive director of the Human Development Council, Randy Hatfield, said there will always be advocates who call this type of funding insufficient, but that it’s “a positive step forward on the part of the province.”

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In 2022, New Brunswick also promised the following:

  • $560,000 through the Affordable Rental Housing Program to help create 14 affordable housing units in Fredericton
  • $8 million over three years to better support emergency shelters
  • $3.6 million in joint funding with the federal government for a 12-unit transitional housing for women who have experienced homelessness in Saint John
  • $205,000 to non-profit groups in Saint John to help renovate affordable housing units
  • $1.6 million in joint funding with the federal government to create and renovate 56 housing units in northeastern N.B.
  • $1.4 million as a forgivable loan to the 12 Neighbours Community Inc. micro-home project in Fredericton
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Davidson said the recent $100-million announcement is a “valiant effort.” But, with more than 100 people living outdoors in Fredericton alone, 40 units over four years is “just a zero shy” of what’s needed.

“This is also a 30- or 40-year car crash … This isn’t this particular government’s responsibility only,” she said.

But, she said it’s time to make bold changes, and housing alone isn’t going to cut it.

Housing First approach

According to Davidson, the current housing system excludes people who have mental-health and substance-use issues.

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Meaningful solutions to chronic homelessness involve those who are experiencing it first-hand.

They also involve the Housing First approach — an idea that people don’t need to work towards housing.

“We don’t need to make people prove that they’re worthy of housing.”

“We don’t need to make people abstain from drugs and substances to say ‘you’re going to be housed now,’ because substance use is a chronic health-care condition,” Davidson said.

“Some people have very severe psychotic disorders that are living outside, unmet mental-health needs that are very severe.”

Click to play video: 'How New Brunswick’s homelessness crisis reached a boiling point'
How New Brunswick’s homelessness crisis reached a boiling point

Once people are housed, wraparound supports need to follow, which may include staffing for mental-health crises, enrollment in programs for safe substance use, or giving a leg-up in returning to the workforce.

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“It’s recognizing where people are at, it’s building on their strengths … But you don’t do all that first to then deserve housing.”

Davidson applies that approach to her clinic. One client of River Stone, who Global News agreed not to identify, said being part of the Opioid Agonist Therapy program has helped her mental health.

The woman developed an addiction to pain medication and over time lost secure housing. She began treatment less than two years ago and even began working at the centre a year ago.

A woman who began treatment at River Stone Recovery Centre less than two years ago was able to begin working at the centre a year ago. Nathalie Sturgeon / Global News

“For the first six months, I guess I just kind of felt like a drug addict, you know? And now I don’t really know who I am, but I don’t feel that anymore because I have — it’s almost like purpose.”

Though it still doesn’t feel like home, she’s not living outdoors anymore, and having a job at the centre has improved her self-esteem.

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“I wake up and I know that I’m needed somewhere and that I’m wanted somewhere.”

One New Brunswicker has taken the Housing First approach into his own hands.

Marcel LeBrun, who describes himself as a philanthropist and a social entrepreneur, is behind the 12 Neighbours Inc. project.

His not-for-profit project plans to build a community of tiny homes on a 24-hectare plot of land on Fredericton’s north side.

Each 23-square-metre home has a full kitchen, three-piece bathroom, living space and loft storage. A full-fledged neighbourhood, the community will have plenty of green and mixed-use space. It will also have a social enterprise centre with a café.

Its first residents moved into their micro-home a year ago, and as of last week, 36 homes have been completed.

Marcel LeBrun says his not-for-profit project is now building one micro-house a week to ramp up the process of moving people inside. Nathalie Sturgeon / Global News

“Housing is the beginning. It’s really ‘how do we help people overcome barriers to independent living,'” LeBrun said.

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“Most people who’ve moved into our community have either come from a shelter environment or in some cases directly from living rough.

But it doesn’t stop there.

“We help people grow … their social network of supportive relationships and then (toward) pursuing their goals, doing personal development, and pursuing a path to employability,” he said.

LeBrun said some members of the community who have been there for less than a year are now employed full-time, and some have even gone off social assistance.

Being housed is the first step to recovering from substance use, trauma and poverty, he added.

“It is incredible that once you’re safe and warm, how much energy you have to start working on those things.”

Editor’s note: This story is Part 3 of a three-part series on the homelessness crisis in New Brunswick. 

Part 1: New Brunswick’s homelessness crisis and how it’s reaching a boiling point

Part 2: The faces of New Brunswick’s homelessness crisis: ‘We’re being treated as lesser’

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