City Motel project, extended Phoenix centre hours don't solve Fredericton's homeless problems

·6 min read

A former executive director of the Fredericton Homeless Shelters has some harsh words about the city's approach to tenters this winter.

"I don't want to swear," said Pat Carlson, "but what in God's name are they thinking?"

"You can't tear someone's home down, be it ever so humble, and not have a place where they can go."

The mayor and city police chief said last week that people were being asked to remove tents when complaints were received about them in order to prevent the establishment of another "tent city" like the one that existed near Government House in 2019.

A lot of harmful activity took place there, said the mayor, such as violence and abuse.

The current executive director of the shelter agreed another tent city should be avoided.

But Warren Maddox admitted there is not enough room in shelters for everyone who is in need this winter.

"We're fairly full and I know Marshall House is fairly full," said Maddox.

"There's capacity in both spaces to accommodate some more people, but it's not going to cover everybody."

Maddox welcomes the project in the works at the City Motel, which is expected to include emergency shelter rooms, as well as supportive housing and more independent, transitional housing.

"It's a great project," he said. "The city desperately needs it."

But that project is going to take some time to get off the ground and both Maddox and Carlson acknowledged that even after it opens, it's not going to get everyone off the streets.

"There are some individuals that aren't going to make it in a shelter environment," said Maddox.

The City Motel project will solve problems for some people, said Carlson, but "there will still be tents."

CBC
CBC

Carlson worked at the shelters over a 12-year period and then ran a retail store for several years that offered training to people who had trouble holding jobs.

In her observation, some people, especially those with certain mental health issues, really preferred to live outside.

They may have addictions or antisocial tendencies, she said, or they just can't stand being closed in.

"There's always going to be some that can't manage this type of living."

That doesn't mean they wouldn't choose to get out of the cold if given the chance.

A short-lived overflow night warming centre in the old Boom! Nightclub attracted 30 to 35 people on each of the three nights it was opened earlier this month.

The owner of the building said the warming centre had to close because it posed an insurance risk and just wasn't the right location.

Maddox noted that photos he saw from inside the centre showed people were in close quarters and not wearing masks.

Some of the people who used the night warming centre said they didn't like to use the shelters because they worried about leaving their belongings outside overnight.

Others said they had run into problems at the other shelters and had been kicked out or banned from them. They cited reasons such as sleeping too late or going out after curfew.

Maddox said no one is barred from the shelter for a reason like that.

Shane Fowler/CBC
Shane Fowler/CBC

Front-line staff can kick a person out if the person is being violent or threatening or is sexually harassing someone, said Maddox. That happens about once a month, he said.

The staff member then has to fill out an incident report, he said, and there is generally video camera evidence of what happened and follow-up with managers.

Fewer than 10 people are prohibited from using the shelters on a long-term basis, he said. And barring generally only happens after extreme or persistent problems.

"You really, really gotta work at it to get barred from the shelter," said Maddox.

"That's not our job, to deflate and defeat people. Our job is to create stabilization and get them into housing they are going to hold onto."

Maddox acknowledged that having a safe, stable space open 24-7 is "critical", but said in order to maintain that safety and stability, some rules and "basic behaviours" are required.

Photo: Gary Moore/CBC News
Photo: Gary Moore/CBC News

For a certain portion of the population, said Carlson, any rules at all are more than they can handle.

"A hundred years ago they would have gone off and built a cabin in the woods and stayed there and nobody would have cared."

"But we're so anal now that everything has to be in line with our policies and in line with the way we live that we've made no room in our heart and our head for the people that can't live successfully in today's world."

The solution, in her view, is a sanctioned outdoor living space that has some supervision and garbage collection.

"Why not say we're going to put a couple of porta-potties in the city budget and pick them up regularly?"

"You have to think outside the box and be willing to accept people on the fringe and service according to what they need, not according to what you want."

Carlson would like elected representatives and policy-makers to re-think "picky and piddly" rules that hinder groups that are trying to help in innovative ways.

Jordan Gill/CBC
Jordan Gill/CBC

She made an example of a time she asked the city if homeless people could sell pens or pencils around town instead of panhandling. The city's position was that each person would have to buy their own individual peddler's licence for $100 and the shelter could not buy it for them.

She also pointed to barriers to mental health care.

Individuals have to ask for help themselves, she said, then wait for a call back and if they aren't there or in the same frame of mind when the call comes, they miss out.

"It's all little tiny things," said Carlson. "That's what makes it so hard."

It took 20 to 25 years, she said, to get a single word changed in a government policy so that people on income assistance could live together without their financial assistance cheques being cut.

"Everything that has a policy that says you can't do this, you can't do that, you have to wait for us — you are the person in trouble, but we're the people serving you and our needs come over your problem, that's it in a nutshell."

A number of agencies are working really hard to resolve some of these issues, said Maddox, mentioning Fredericton Housing First, the downtown health clinic and the Phoenix centre.

The city agreed this week to allocate $20,000 to extend the hours at the Phoenix daytime drop-in centre, but it still closes at 9 p.m.

Fredericton Homeless Shelters recently created its own outreach position, he said, and also refers people to mental health services when issues come up in conversations after there's been an incident such as a violent outburst.

Some outreach programs were "a little bit restricted," during the red phase of COVID-19 recovery, said Maddox, but there are normally workers on the street connecting with people who are homeless on a daily basis.