New Brunswick town declares state of emergency due to 'unprecedented' homelessness

ST. STEPHEN, N.B. — A New Brunswick municipal council has declared a state of emergency, citing "unprecedented" rates of homelessness and the recent death of an unhoused resident.

The declaration by the municipal district of St. Stephen, N.B., dated Monday, takes pointed aim at the provincial government, accusing it of failing to provide housing and social services to the community’s residents.

The council is calling on Premier Blaine Higgs to use part of the province's budgetary surplus to fund a solution to "the public health and safety crisis" facing the town.

“The Municipal District of St. Stephen has neither the jurisdictional authority nor the financial resources to appropriately address the consequences of the government of New Brunswick’s failure,” the declaration reads.

Roughly 70 people are homeless in the community of about 4,150, said St. Stephen’s emergency declaration. Last week, "a resident of a public space" died, it said, “a situation which will only become more likely” as winter sets in.

Provinces and communities across the country are grappling with rising rates of homelessness amid a nationwide affordable housing shortage.

Kris Austin, New Brunswick's minister of public safety, told reporters Tuesday he found the emergency alert "very disappointing" and frivolous.

"I have written back to the mayor, to make sure that he is aware of what a definition of a state of emergency is," Austin said. "A state of emergency is used in extreme and rare cases, and it is my opinion this does not fit a state of emergency."

When pressed about the recent death, he added: "People die all the time in car accidents. We don't (call) a state of emergency over vehicles on the road."

Austin said federal, provincial and municipal governments have a role in addressing homelessness, and he accused Allan MacEachern, the mayor of St. Stephen, of "trying to skirt that responsibility."

He suggested the town offer a warming shelter to its homeless population.

The council's declaration does not call out Austin, but it does ask five other ministers for immediate help, including the province's education minister for buses if they become necessary in response to the emergency alert. The declaration gives the province permission to "provide for the evacuation of citizens at risk of exposure, illness, and death to a location where the adequate care and protection can be provided."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2023.

The Canadian Press