N.B. encampment residents can't understand why someone wanted to burn down their home

SAINT JOHN, N.B. — A non-profit group working with homeless people in Saint John, N.B., says residents of an encampment where a tent was set on fire this week are fearful, but they have returned to the site.

Melanie Vautour, executive director of Fresh Start Services, said there were 12 people inside four tents when the fire began at around 7:45 p.m. on Sunday.

A video from Saint John police shows a person exiting the passenger side of a car stopped beside the encampment in uptown Saint John, running inside the fence, and a few seconds later running back to the car as flames shot into the air.

Saint John police said witnesses heard something hit the tent before it caught fire, and the four people who were inside it managed to escape without injury. Staff Sgt. Sean Rocca said the investigation is ongoing, and officers are still looking for information about the suspects.

Vautour said the encampment residents don't know why they were targeted.

"None of them — they can't think of anyone who would purposely try to hurt them this way. We have never experienced this before," she said.

"It's challenging to be homeless, you feel that everyone is against you. You feel unwelcome. For the residents there ... this was, again, just another kind of validation that they aren't wanted in the community and neighbourhoods."

She said there is growing resentment from people living in the area about the increase in encampments, and residents fear it could be a case of vigilantism. But it also cannot be ruled out that the attack was some sort of payback related to drugs, she said.

"But then I would counter that, if someone's house is damaged or destroyed, is our first question, 'Well, what did they do to deserve it?'" Vautour asked. "So, really, at the end of the day, it was an act of violence."

The homeless population in Saint John has seen a steady increase, and the city now has 270 unhoused residents, she said.

Fresh Start has partnered with another non-profit, Kaleidoscope Social Impact, to replace the tents with six shipping containers that have heat, electricity, a bed, a table and a chair.

"People will be enclosed," she said. "They'll have their own tiny space. They'll be able to close their curtains and lock their doors."

Social Development Minister Jill Green said she was "saddened" by the "heartless incident."

Her department supports the partnership between Kaleidoscope Social Impact and Fresh Start Services that offer a temporary solution, she said in an emailed statement.

"Strong collaboration with our municipalities and our community partners is the strong foundation we need to move toward safe and sustainable housing for all New Brunswickers, and I commend them for the work they’re doing in the community," she said.

Vautour said while the containers offer a respite, a permanent solution is needed.

"When we see people living outside, we see the good, the bad and the ugly. The rest of us get to hide it behind our walls," she said.

"So there's this misconception that there's more violence, there's maybe more substance use, there's more disagreements, because there's nowhere to hide."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2024.

-- By Hina Alam in Fredericton

The Canadian Press