Loving a neighbourhood into being: Project tackles one piece of the homelessness puzzle

For Joanne Murray and Rev. Shawn Redden, solving the growing affordable housing crisis isn't just about putting a roof over someone's head.

Standing in the middle of an empty, two-acre lot in Moncton's east end, the two women point out where a new apartment building and community centre will be standing by next fall.

The $4.5 million "Community Hub" will include 20 one-bedroom apartments on Joyce Avenue, along with a large gathering space, community kitchen and office space for non-profit organizations.

Murray, executive director of the John Howard Society of Southeastern New Brunswick, said the concept is to provide more than apartments for the homeless men — who often feel like outsiders — who will move in.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

"They become disconnected," she said.

"First because people shut them out and then because they feel they don't belong. And so by building community around them, it's their community. So they don't have to fit in. This is theirs."

Murray has submitted the project for funding under the new 10-year $299.2 million housing agreement the province has signed with Ottawa. Visions United will lease space in the community centre.

The goal of the housing agreement is to create 151 new affordable housing units in New Brunswick in the first three years.

Residents will find acceptance

The John Howard Society already has 10 affordable apartments in a building on Flanders Court in Moncton, which Murray said has helped dozens of tenants find support to move on with their lives.

Mario Côté, 48, moved into that building in June when he found himself with no place to live.

Submitted by Joanne Murray

"It's extremely hard — especially when you're coming out of addiction and you don't quite have your legs underneath you," he said of trying to find an apartment he could afford.  

Côté, who was addicted to cocaine and opiates for 30 years, is now in recovery and working.

When you're shown kindness and support, it makes you want to give it back to people. -Mario Côté

He credits the staff at the John Howard Society and the nine other men who live in his apartment building with giving him the structure and security he needed to change his life.

"Here right now is the closest thing I have to a family," he said. "The community is super important.

"Those are the things that make you want to go another day and also, when you're shown kindness and support, it makes you want to give it back to people." 

More than a Sunday service

For Redden's congregation, becoming a partner in the Community Hub is a decision that was a long time coming.

The 175 families who are part of Visions United Church no longer wanted to put their time and money into maintaining a large church and have instead chosen to lease space in the new development for their ministry offices and for Sunday worship.

Pierre Fournier/CBC News

"We don't want to be putting our resources into a building all on our own," she said. "We wanted to be freed up to be about living our faith and offering community to people."

Redden believes Moncton is on the cusp of becoming a big city with "big city problems," and now is the perfect time to step up to be part of something larger than a Sunday church service.

"A church by its very nature is a community of people. So just by Visions going about its normal, everyday activities and programs, there are people coming and going that can interact with, befriend, get to know, be in relationships with the residents if they so choose."

Not a halfway house

Murray and Redden have hosted three public information sessions about the Community Hub and have heard concerns they are opening a "halfway house," which is not the case.

The tenants will be men between the ages of 19 and 55 who will be chosen from Moncton's "by-name list," which includes everyone who is experiencing homelessness in the city.

Submitted by Visions United Church

"They have plans and goals and they just need a little bit of help with housing in terms of affordability but also they want to live in community," Murray said.

The apartments will be owned and managed by the John Howard Society using a peer-support model that has already proven successful in Moncton.

In the new development, in addition to support from case managers, tenants will be supported by two on-site superintendents who have themselves experienced homelessness in the past.

Murray said since the Flanders Court residence opened nine years ago, there have been "zero issues."

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

Helping neighbours to connect

While the John Howard Society will offer programs for tenants such as job counselling, financial counselling, mental health and addictions counselling, the Community Hub will also provide less formal supports.

Redden hopes members of her congregation, tenants and other neighbours will mingle and sing in the church choir or take part in a community supper.

I finally belong somewhere. - Mario Côté

"There's been studies that show the mental health benefits of singing in a choir — OK, well we've got thousands of years history of doing that right? That's a resource," Redden laughed.

"People just gathering together, getting to know one another — that's what creates healthy relationships. I think that's what the church helps to bring."

Submitted by Joanne Murray

Connections cure loneliness, transform people

At the housing units the John Howard Society already operates, Murray said one of the "most transformative" things was a garden planted by a staff member.

"Eventually one person stopped and helped, and then another. Then she put a picnic table out, then she brought food out."

By the end of the summer, Murray remembers, people were sitting and eating together around that table.

"They were laughing and talking and stuff was happening. People were talking out some of the things that they sit with at night."

Submitted by Joanne Muray

Côté helped to tend that garden and describes the experience as "awesome."

"It was the first time that I've been involved in growing a garden and I really truly loved it."

To him, the garden was an analogy for life, he said.

"You know the work you put in a garden and a few weeks later you're cultivating fresh fruits from it — it's a good example for what you do in life also … pulling out the weeds and what's not good, watering what is good."

For Côté, cooking and sharing meals in the community kitchen at Flanders Court is the "absolute best."

"I finally belong somewhere right."

Caring for your neighbour

Murray and Redden have seen the negative impacts loneliness has on mental and physical health, and want the tenants at the Community Hub to connect, and feel what it is like "to have someone care for them."

How do we love neighbourhoods into being? How do we love communities into being? - Rev. Shawn Redden

"If we start by looking at people's potential and looking at people's gifts and their strengths first, as opposed to their problems … that's where transformation can happen," Murray said.

"One relationship at a time can absolutely change a community."

When Redden thinks of the new Community Hub, she is reminded of a question children's television host Fred Rogers used to ask on Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood.

"He would often ask people to think for a moment. Who are the persons who loved you into being? And so for us — How do we love neighbourhoods into being? How do we love communities into being?"