City of Saint John pledges to do more for homeless, says province needs to step up too

·3 min read
Tents that were set up on Chown Field behind Prince Charles School last week. (Rachel Cave/CBC - image credit)
Tents that were set up on Chown Field behind Prince Charles School last week. (Rachel Cave/CBC - image credit)

The issue of homelessness was back on the agenda at Saint John City Council on Tuesday night, and it was clear many at the table feel the province needs to do more to help tackle the issue.

The conversation was kickstarted after the city was forced to move people who were tenting at Chown Field in the city's uptown.

The principal of Prince Charles School complained about a number of tents on the field, which also serves as the school's playground.

Tuesday night, both Deputy Mayor John MacKenzie and Coun. David Hickey had the issue on the agenda.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Hickey included a motion to direct the city manager to make homelessness a priority.

"The Human Development Council currently cites 141 people experiencing homelessness in Saint John, up from 112 as of April," Hickey said.

"Those experiencing chronic homelessness sits at 88, compared to 57 this time last year."

Hickey said the numbers are even worse in Fredericton and Moncton.

"It is disappointing that it falls on the lap of this council to have to resort to take action on this issue. … I think the province has failed us when it comes to housing. I think they've failed us in terms of affordable housing and I think they've failed us in terms of shelter housing."

Coun. Gary Sullivan agreed.

"My gosh, the issues involved here, whether it be poverty, mental health — a range of issues that lead to people being homeless — are not a municipality's ultimate responsibility," Sullivan said.

"We don't have the deep pockets to hire the social workers, to provide the money that municipalities would then use to build housing and follow through on their action plans."

City manager John Collin welcomed the motion from Hickey but admitted the city's priority in the short term should be finding adequate cold weather shelter for the upcoming winter.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

"This is an incredibly complex issue. If it was simple to solve, we would have already solved it."

Collin said staff are already working with local organizations that are regularly in touch with people living outside. But he said the city has limited resources.

"For example, last winter, in the height of the cold, we could have had more people in shelters if we would have had the staff. We didn't have the staff. We didn't have the staff because there was no budget for that staff."

"There are serious financial issues here. We need to throw money at this problem — And when I say 'We', I'm referring particularly to the provincial government — in order to address it."

Coun. Joanna Killen said the city has a headstart on tackling homelessness, thanks to a committee put together by Saint John police Chief Robert Bruce.

It includes people who deal with issues such as homelessness, addiction, mental health and youth at risk.

Rachel Cave/CBC
Rachel Cave/CBC

"So I think we need to look at what the chief is doing here and really try to see how we can put it on steroids. How can we supercharge the efforts?"

It's all part of an effort to stop trying to police homelessness away, something  Sullivan said even the police understand won't work.

"There are so many issues in the community that they admit they shouldn't be dealing with, but why do they deal with it? Because they get the calls," Sullivan said. "Because other people are not dealing with it.

"I think it's incredibly important for us to do what we can do."