Promise to end homelessness turns to frustration with House of Nazareth

·5 min read
The House of Nazereth in Moncton opened its new location on Albert Street in 2019. (Shane Magee/CBC - image credit)
The House of Nazereth in Moncton opened its new location on Albert Street in 2019. (Shane Magee/CBC - image credit)

It started with grand promises.

"We're going to do things differently," Jean Dubé proclaimed on May 24, 2019. "We're going to find solutions. And we're going to put an end to homelessness."

The then-executive director of House of Nazareth was announcing the charity, with financial backing from the federal and provincial governments, would buy a former gym in downtown Moncton. It would, Dubé said, become a 120-bed homeless shelter.

It was meant to fill the gap after a surge in the number of people living in tents and a winter in which two emergency out-of-the-cold shelters opened to get people off the streets.

Dubé promised on-site support services and guaranteed someone walking down the street wouldn't know a shelter was there.

None of it came true. Applause that day has been replaced with frustration.

"It certainly has not lived up to the hype," Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold said in an interview.

"That is clear. I think lessons learned, you know, perhaps people were naive in getting into this. I think if any one person says that they personally are going to solve homelessness, I think that is a warning sign. I don't think there is any one person or one level of government or one agency that can do this alone. It has to be a collaborative effort."

Pierre Fournier/CBC
Pierre Fournier/CBC

After being viewed as a solution, it's now viewed as a problem. A steady stream of complaints from nearby residents and businesses about crime and drug use followed its opening. City staff began to regularly note in public meetings that they weren't getting information from the organization.

The province ordered an audit that pointed to problems with policies and financial management. Dubé resigned, the board was replaced. But Arnold said the number of calls for RCMP and complaints from neighbours and businesses continue.

"The problems don't seem to be going away," Bruce Fitch, the province's minister of social development said in an interview last week before he became health minister.

The organization's board has hired OrgCode Consulting to review the shelter's operations. Arnold and Fitch want to see that report and hope it will lead to changes.

"We're looking for this next operational report and hopefully the board will take action and and alleviate those issues that are concern for people in the Albert Street area, but also in the greater downtown," Fitch said.

Pat Richard/CBC
Pat Richard/CBC

Fitch said he expects changes.

"If the outcomes are not being seen, or the expectations are not being met from these contracts that we enter into, I'm not afraid to change those contracts or telling the provider what things need to change."

Rosaire L'Italien is the chair of the House of Nazareth board, taking on the role following the audit and Dubé's resignation.

"We did mistakes before, Ok, but we dealt with this mistake."

He didn't elaborate.

Neighbours who raised concerns asked to help

Over the course of a nearly 30 minute interview, he largely deflected responsibility to those critical of how the shelter has operated.

"Those who have made complaints against Nazareth, they will have to take their responsibility," L'Italien said. "We have complaints from the neighborhood. I can understand everything, but they will have to take their responsibility."

He said neighbours have a responsibility to assist the shelter.

Mayor says shelter likely too large

Last Monday, Arnold spoke at a public meeting about her conversations with Premier Blaine Higgs and other PC caucus members weeks earlier, telling them the city needs help and that the shelter needs an operational plan and security.

L'Italien said it does have an operational plan and "there's a lot of security inside, but they're responsible inside the shelter. Outside the shelter, it's the city." He said they have about 80 people registered to stay in the shelter.

In an interview, Arnold said the shelter is "likely too large," and its location is problematic given its proximity to the rail line people have used as a shortcut through the city's downtown.

"I think what we're seeing is that we probably need smaller shelters than that in locations that are perhaps not all in our downtown core," Arnold said.

Asked if that means she thinks the shelter should be relocated, Arnold said without a proper operational plan, security and services, "I'm not convinced it can be successful in its current location. But perhaps with those things put in place, they can be."

L'Italien said they'll move if governments pay for it.

"I'm ready to move at no cost, no problem at all. But don't forget, a few years ago, it's [the Department of] Social Development [that asked] us to put our shelter on the street."

Concerns about the scale of the shelter, the largest in the city, aren't new.

Before it opened, Lisa Ryan was worried. Ryan at the time worked with YMCA's ReConnect street outreach service and helped run an emergency shelter in the winter of 2018-19.

"We recommended it would start with 50 beds and each year those beds to be reduced as long as housing placements were happening," Ryan said in an interview last week.

"What ended up happening was after the place was opened, it was announced that there would be almost double, I think, over double the number of beds without an adequate staffing plan, without adequate policies and procedures in place, and without consideration as well for populations that needed to access those services."

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Ryan, who now works in Nova Scotia, said she remains in touch with some of the people she worked with in Moncton. Last year she sent a letter to House of Nazareth's board outlining her concerns with its operations.

One thing Arnold, L'Italien and Ryan agreed on was that the provincial government needs to step up with more mental health and addictions services.

Arnold said shelters shouldn't be considered long-term housing.

"We need to get to that model where people come in and get the services that they need and then can move along the housing spectrum," Arnold said.

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