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'Pettiness' from cabinet ministers won't help homeless people, St. Stephen mayor says

St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern says cabinet ministers Kris Austin and Jill Green were being 'petty' in their response to his town's declaration of a local emergency over homelessness. (Graham Thompson/CBC News - image credit)
St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern says cabinet ministers Kris Austin and Jill Green were being 'petty' in their response to his town's declaration of a local emergency over homelessness. (Graham Thompson/CBC News - image credit)

The mayor of a municipality slammed by two New Brunswick cabinet ministers for the way it sought attention for its homeless population isn't backing down on his plea for help.

St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern says he wishes the Progressive Conservative government had responded with action rather than "pettiness."

St. Stephen council voted on Monday to declare a state of local emergency, asking the province for immediate action on a warming shelter, after a homeless man died in the cold.

The next day Public Safety Kris Austin complained of the council's "political posturing," sent a letter suggesting it do its homework about the grounds for declaring a state of emergency, and gave it a day to prove the city's concerns met the standard.

Kris Austin told reporters that the declaration by St. Stephen was "political posturing" and he would declare it void by the end of Wednesday if the mayor and council could not prove the urgency.
Kris Austin told reporters that the declaration by St. Stephen was "political posturing" and he would declare it void by the end of Wednesday if the mayor and council could not prove the urgency.

Public Safety Minister Kris Austin told reporters that the declaration by St. Stephen was "political posturing" and he would declare it void by the end of Wednesday if the mayor and council could not prove the urgency. (Jacques Poitras/CBC News)

Social Development Minister Jill Green, meanwhile, said her department had been working with St. Stephen on the issue, she'd given the mayor her personal cell number and never heard from him, and efforts to find a place for warming trailers were blocked by an attitude of "not in my backyard."

"Really, blaming our community?" MacEachern said later. "I was sorry to hear that.

"Let's get these people off the street today … and then we can have all these fights about where it should be and all that kind of stuff, later."

MacEachern told CBC News there would be a response to Austin's letter, as he requested, but he wished Austin had called him instead.

MacEachern said he also took issue with  Minister of Social Development Jill Green's comment susggesting she had been working him him and council, when he said he and his councillors have never spoken to her before.
MacEachern said he also took issue with Minister of Social Development Jill Green's comment susggesting she had been working him him and council, when he said he and his councillors have never spoken to her before.

MacEachern took issue with Social Development Minister Jill Green's suggestion she has been working with the town, when he and his councillors have never spoken to her. (Jacques Poitras/CBC News)

"It was all about 'how to get out of this emergency order,' instead of, 'Hey, what can we do to make this better? Is there something else we can look at, or let's start working on the issue.'

"I didn't mean to call them out, it's not about us versus them, this emergency order is about providing a path for us to take care of this issue."

MacEachern said he's received lots of positive local feedback about the declaration, and it's even led to new suggestions about a location for a shelter.

"We're talking about it right now, so if anything, we've won that much."

He said he understands the province is in a difficult position as it faces homelessness across New Brunswick, but the municipality can't wait any longer as winter takes hold.

Local people interviewed Tuesday said the homelessness situation in St. Stephen has only gotten worse in the past year.

Emily Muir, the manager of the food bank in St. Stephen, said she supports the state of emergency declaration because the issue of homelessness has been growing.
Emily Muir, the manager of the food bank in St. Stephen, said she supports the state of emergency declaration because the issue of homelessness has been growing.

Emily Muir, the manager of the food bank in St. Stephen, says she supports the state of emergency declaration because homelessness has been growing. (Graham Thompson/CBC News)

Emily Muir, the community services manager at the Volunteer Centre of Charlotte County, which oversees the food bank in town, had a simple opinion of the emergency declaration.

"Finally," Muir said.

"I hope that the outcome is immediate action is taken …  like 'now.' It can't wait for funding, it can't wait for a place and wait for all those things. Because that's what we've already been doing is waiting."

Muir said people who are homeless have gotten a bad reputation in town, and some stay hidden as a result. But still the problem has become more apparent. Homeless people have even taken shelter in a covered bridge replica, winterizing it with tarps and a space heater.

"They're from here. I went to school with them or I know their brother, they're from this small, little town," Muir said.

She's hopeful that the state of emergency will bring some much-needed help to the town because lives are at risk.

Muir said that many homeless people have taken up shelter in a covered bridge replica building, using tarps and a space heater to keep warm.
Muir said that many homeless people have taken up shelter in a covered bridge replica building, using tarps and a space heater to keep warm.

Muir says some homeless people have taken up shelter in a covered bridge replica building, using tarps and a space heater to keep warm. (Graham Thompson/CBC News)

"It looks to the rest of us that we've been screaming from a mountaintop that we need help, and it's not being heard or not being answered."

Local business owner Doug Harper said he was shocked to hear about the death of a homeless person in town.

The man who died was a childhood friend of his, and they had just spoken to each other a few weeks ago.

"It's a young fella I went to school with actually, really nice fella," Harper said.

Local buisness owner Doug Harper said he was old friends with the homeless person who died in the cold, and that the state of emergency declaration should have come sooner.
Local buisness owner Doug Harper said he was old friends with the homeless person who died in the cold, and that the state of emergency declaration should have come sooner.

Local buisness owner Doug Harper says he was a friend of the homeless man who died in the cold, and an emergency declaration should have come sooner. (Graham Thompson/CBC News)

He said he wishes that the town's emergency declaration had come sooner.

"It should have been done the first couple cold nights when we knew we didn't have a shelter," Harper said.

"It's a shame that it takes somebody dying before it gets done."