Samantha Seymour still remembers that first night in her new tiny home at 12 Neighbours. She had come from living at a shelter, and was given a pumpkin as a housewarming gift.
"I put it on my front step. I was like, 'Is it going to get stolen?' That was my first thought. 'Do I leave it outside?' I left it outside. I woke up the next morning, and the pumpkin was still there."
It will be one year this October since Seymour first put that pumpkin on her porch. She's one of several previously homeless Frederictonians who now call 12 Neighbours home.
Even now, Seymour still has her guard up. She said people she used to hang out with on the streets have tried to worm their way back into her life and she's had to shut them out and forge her own path.
12 Neighbours founder Marcel LeBrun says there’s a new tiny home built and ready for move-in 'every four business days.' (Jeanne Armstrong/CBC)
Setting boundaries and leaving a life on the streets behind is one of the biggest challenges for residents at Fredericton's tiny home community. It has led to squatters, security gates and arguments with neighbours — and questions around whether a concentrated community of vulnerable people is the best housing model.
More than 70 tiny homes built in two years
In September 2021, Marcel LeBrun built a tiny home in his Fredericton backyard. Two years and more than 70 tiny homes later, he's built a community from the ground up.
The homes sit on a 24-hectare plot of land which is ever-changing. A large social enterprise building is being constructed, a new community garden just went in, and fresh sod is replacing patches of gravel.
The homes are built at a quick clip — LeBrun said there's a new tiny home built and ready for move-in "every four business days." They plan to cap the project at 99 homes.
LeBrun said handing someone a fresh set of house keys is the easy part.
A worker sweeps the warehouse where a couple of tiny homes can be seen at various stages of completion. Lebrun says the plan is to cap the project at 99 homes. (Submitted by Marcel LeBrun)
"How do you achieve and maintain housing stability? For some, that's really easy. For others that's a big shift in their lifestyle," LeBrun said.
It has led to some residents being taken advantage of — and instances of squatting, he said.
"[The resident] moves into a house and then other people show up and say, 'Hey, you owe me this, you owe me that,' and they kind of take over things and they have to learn, what does it mean to have a space where you are actually the manager of that space, and you control it … and you choose who you invite in and out? So, that's a challenge."
LeBrun said in a handful of cases they've had to evict tenants who can't maintain control of their housing, or who make other residents feel unsafe.
We wanted to make a dent in the challenge that we have here in Fredericton.… If we want to actually make a meaningful difference, we have to build some houses. — Marcel LeBrun, 12 Neighbours founder
They've also had to install security gates at the entrances of the property. The gates are open during the day and closed overnight.
Samantha Seymour said the new security measures have made a "big difference" in helping people feel safe.
"I live right behind the security gates. There were cars coming in all the time, at three o'clock in the morning, waking me up.… The gates have set boundaries."
Close-knit housing vs. decentralized units
Not everyone agrees with LeBrun's approach. Warren Maddox is the executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters, and said he spoke to LeBrun when the project was still in its infancy.
"My advice to him was stop at 50 [homes] and take a breath," Maddox said.
"It's a huge concentration [of people]. You've got people that have paranoia, or that have come through some really massive trauma, where they need to be sort of away from that population."
Maddox said his preference is a more decentralized approach, where units are scattered around the city and you avoid a large concentration of people living in close proximity.
LeBrun has heard the criticism, and said the 12 Neighbours approach has so far been a success.
Warren Maddox, executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters, says his preference is a more decentralized approach, where units are scattered around the city to avoid a large concentration of people living in close proximity. (Jeanne Armstrong/CBC)
He said his community is "actively managed" with wrap-around supports, including personal development plans, resident support workers, and addiction recovery programs. He said it is also conveniently located near groceries, amenities and bus routes.
Logistically, LeBrun said his approach makes affordable housing faster to build and easier to scale up.
"It's just as hard to go build four homes, in terms of all the hoops you have to run through, as it is to build 10 or 20, and we wanted to make a dent in the challenge that we have here in Fredericton.… If we want to actually make a meaningful difference, we have to build some houses," LeBrun said.
And while he understands the appeal of a decentralized approach, LeBrun said it's difficult to build community that way.
"Let's say I take someone who's been living outside, and say, 'OK, I'm going to put you in 10-years-free rent in the highest end apartment in the city.' Are they going to succeed? That is not their community. That is not the context they're used to living in," LeBrun said.
A new career in silk screen printing
While it might not be for everybody, Samantha Seymour said 12 Neighbours is a good fit for her.
"For me, living in an apartment building would not work for me. I'm an isolator.… People wouldn't see me coming and going. Here, people knock on my door. I go knock on people's doors."
She said people "watch out for each other" in the community. She lovingly calls one neighbour her adopted son, and another her sister.
There are nicknames, too: Hat Rack, Bobo, and Nightgown.
(The latter is Seymour's nickname for reasons she herself wasn't clear on.)
While there's lots of support and camaraderie, she doesn't get along with all her neighbours.
"It's an imperfect world. I don't get along with myself most days," Seymour said with a laugh.
The tiny home community has had to install security gates at the entrances of the property. The gates are open during the day and closed overnight. (Jeanne Armstrong/CBC)
Seymour is currently in recovery for a drug and alcohol addiction. Despite the fact that many of her neighbours struggle with substance use disorder, she said it hasn't been a bad influence on her.
"I have a great support system around me, and I'm doing the work necessary every day to stay there," she said.
She recently started learning a new trade: silk screening. She's the print lead for the 12 Neighbours print shop, where she silk screens tote bags and T-shirts by hand.
It's a departure from her initial career plans — to go back to school to be an outreach worker to "help people help themselves."
"But I don't need to go to school for that, right? I can just do that as a human being."