'I've never felt shame like this in my life': 500 homeless, 5,000 await affordable housing

When New Brunswick signed a $299.2 million agreement with Ottawa under the National Housing Strategy, many hoped there would soon be affordable apartments for at least some of the 500 people across the province who are homeless.

However, more than eight months into the first year of that 10-year agreement, there hasn't been an influx of new units, nor a flurry of plans to start building them.

In the past year, Karen Brooker's situation has gotten worse, not better.

The 58-year-old Moncton woman is homeless and has been living at the Nazareth House shelter since Aug. 1.

"I've been rattling doors, talking to people, and I can't find affordable housing. And that's all I want is a safe place to live that I can afford."

Frontline workers frustrated

Brooker's situation comes as no surprise to Lisa Ryan, co-ordinator of the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee.

When asked if she has seen any improvements since April 1, when the housing agreement began, she said, "Not as of yet."

Ryan points out that funding for the 10-year plan is "backloaded" with most of it expected in later years.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

According to the 2019-2022 New Brunswick Action Plan, the goal in the first three years of the agreement is to create just 151 new rental units. Another 1,111 units would be created in the final seven years.

"I wouldn't say that we're able to get ourselves out of the situation we're in right now based on what we're receiving," said Ryan. 

We're going to need a major increase in both housing and supports to deal with the issues at hand. - Lisa Ryan, Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee

"With regards to units — I mean if we're not creating any, then we're only working with an existing pot of units."

More than 5,000 households are on the waiting list for subsidized housing in New Brunswick. In Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton, 500 people are currently homeless.

Subsidized units allow tenants to pay 30 per cent of their monthly income toward rent, while the government pays the rest.

"We're going to need a major increase in both housing and supports to deal with the issues at hand," Ryan said.

'There is a deficit — there's no way around it'

Michael MacKenzie, a system planner with the Human Development Council, based in Saint John, said even though 67 people have been moved into homes in Saint John in the past eight months, there are still 166 people in that city alone without a home and the number continues to grow.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

"We don't have 166 units. We don't have the ability to house all those people on the list. There is a deficit — there's no way around it."

Brooker, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, receives $763 a month and was sharing an $800 per month apartment with a roommate. She was able to afford $400 a month with the help of food banks and soup kitchens, but said the landlord kicked them out and has since raised the rent to $1,200.

"The rents are going higher than our cheques and I believe that some of these landlords are doing it on purpose — because they do not want us in their apartments."

Brooker said she doesn't drink or do drugs and describes herself as "responsible." She has always cleaned her apartments before moving out and said she takes pride in that fact that she's never lost a damage deposit.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

This is the first time she's been homeless, but Brooker can't see how she'll be able to move out of the shelter.

"I've never felt shame like this in my life — people look down at you. I've been called a whore and I'm just sitting there," she said.

"It's been despicable what people do. It's hard to explain how shame feels and I shouldn't have to feel shame just because I can't afford a place to live."

Brooker still volunteers when she can and is thankful that her cat, Sassy Girl, is able to stay with a friend and that she can still visit her.  

"She's my companion. She keeps me calm and I can't lose my baby," Brooker said of her cat.

Province, feds refuse to talk

CBC News contacted the New Brunswick Department of Social Development and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., which is the federal agency leading the National Housing Strategy, but both refused to provide anyone for an interview.

Jean Bertin, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Development, said in an email that the 151 new units that will be constructed in the first three years of the agreement have yet to be announced.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

Bertin confirmed the "financial component" of the 10-year agreement is "back-end loaded," meaning most of the money will come in later years.

"That means we will proceed with 151 new units in the first three years and a total of more than 1,200 new units over 10 years," he wrote in an e-mail.

No one, including Minister Dorothy Shephard, could explain what the strategy is or why just $629,000, of a total budget of $19.7 million for new housing units, is being spent in the first three years of the agreement.

Bertin said "new affordable housing options and the repair and renovation of existing units" are New Brunswick's top priorities. 

We are literally paving the way to more poverty, more crime, more vulnerable individuals sleeping in the elements and preventable deaths increasing. - Lisa Ryan

 

While Ben Appleby sees more affordable housing units as the number one need in New Brunswick, he believes expecting government to build everything that's required is "not realistic."

Appleby, a housing co-ordinator with a non-profit called Housing Alternatives which is based in Saint John, offers support to low-income people who are moving into apartments.

He said without enough affordable housing units, he relies on a limited number of rent supplements from the provincial government that can be used for apartments that are available on the open market.

Under the rent supplement program, private landlords sign an agreement with the government, and receive the bulk of their rent from the the province, while the tenant pays the remainder, which equals 30 per cent of their income.

Shane Magee/CBC

Appleby said with vacancy rates dropping, rents increasing and the increasing popularity of short-term rentals through Airbnb, fewer and fewer landlords are interested in being part of the rent subsidy program.

"That puts the province in a tight spot," Ryan said.

"We have landlords who can very easily walk away because they can say, 'Hey, I don't need your subsidy anymore.' Whereas before it was beneficial."

Policy changes needed

With a desperate lack of housing options for the hundreds who are homeless and the thousands who need affordable places to live, Ryan is calling on New Brunswick cities to follow Montreal's lead.

In June, Mayor Valérie Plante introduced new rules, which will compel developers to build social and affordable housing, or contribute to a fund that will finance social housing if they don't.

Ryan said with building permits in Moncton on pace to set a record this year, it's time for leaders to expect more from developers who are putting up luxury condominiums and apartments.

"We have to get … better at being a little bit more honest about what's actually happening when we see developments coming into our community with no affordable housing plans attached to that."

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

Unless municipal governments step in to make affordable housing mandatory, Ryan worries New Brunswick is heading down the wrong path.

"We are literally paving the way to more poverty, more crime, more vulnerable individuals sleeping in the elements and preventable deaths increasing."

In Montreal, Coun. Craig Sauvé, who is the councillor responsible for housing, said he has been getting calls from all over Canada asking about his city's new bylaw.

"We've made it one of our core priorities … to make housing affordable for Montrealers in the long run," he said. "In order to receive the construction permit you have to follow this bylaw."

I want [developers] to make money, but they have to contribute and make a place for social and affordable housing for the neighbourhoods. - Montreal Coun. Craig Sauve

Sauvé said there has been backlash from developers who don't want to have affordable units in their buildings, but he is confident the policy is a good one.

"I want [developers] to make money, but they have to contribute and make a place for social and affordable housing for the neighbourhoods."

The City of Moncton has an affordable housing plan. It doesn't include plans for a developer bylaw but does include the goal of looking at the creation of a housing corporation and increasing the use of municipal land grants and incentives to developers.

'No one picture of homelessness'

Chris Gorman, who is also a systems manager at Saint John's Human Development Council, knows the names and the stories of everyone who is experiencing homelessness in Saint John.

"There is no one picture of homelessness," he said. "The only truth is everybody on this list needs a home."

Jérôme Labbé/Radio-Canada

One of the biggest successes he has seen was a young man who was on the list for a very short time, and never heard from again.

"He just moved into an apartment, got a job immediately and is now fine. And to me that's the whole point of this … all he needed was an apartment."

Gorman said New Brunswickers have to decide what they want as a community.

"These are people that you grew up with. So do we value our neighbours? We have to figure this out."