Province to use higher Moncton homeless numbers, work with city on shelter space

Homeless encampments have been set up in various places around Moncton, including under bridges. (Pascal Raiche-Nogue/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Homeless encampments have been set up in various places around Moncton, including under bridges. (Pascal Raiche-Nogue/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The New Brunswick government now says it will use a tally of Moncton's homeless population hundreds higher than it had been citing.

Dorothy Shephard, the minister of Social Development, told Maritime Noon on Thursday the province would switch from a count of about 224 people to one given to Moncton council on Monday of more than 500.

Shephard also said the province will work with the city to "stand up a new shelter" and finalize a warming centre that had already been planned for the winter.

The change followed concern from municipal officials that the province was relying on figures to make its decisions on the issue that were hundreds lower than reality.

"The [difference] is very concerning between what they were sort of planning for and what the reality is," Mayor Dawn Arnold told Radio-Canada Tuesday.

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

Trevor Goodwin with the YMCA's ReConnect street outreach service presented the "north of 500" figure to Moncton council on Monday.

It was delivered with a warning that homeless people may die this winter if more isn't done. Only hours later, a homeless person was found dead in a public washroom outside city hall.

Goodwin told reporters the count includes people living outside, sleeping on a floor, or couch surfing for a night without a sure place to go in the future. He said it doesn't include those staying in shelters, which are already at capacity.

The province had been pointing to what's called a by-names list. It's a more formal count with detailed information about each individual. They provide information and agree to be tracked on the list.

The collection of someone's information for that list usually happens at a shelter. That means it tends to reflect those who reside at shelters, Goodwin said.

"We, on the other hand, have all these other individuals that are outside and aren't accessing, or can't access, shelter," Goodwin said Monday.

"That's why they're not on that list, among many other reasons. So it's not that the by-names list is wrong or not a good tool. It is — and so much hard work goes into doing it. It's just that it hasn't captured everyone yet."

He said that means there's a much larger need for homelessness support than the by-names list implies.

Marc Landry, Moncton's city manager, told councillors Monday the by-names list is what the province has been using to base its spending decisions on.

In an emailed statement responding to CBC's questions about what figures the province is using, a spokesperson for the department said its plans are based on "the most valid and reliable data available."

"We are confident that the by-names list reflects the number of individuals who want to be helped," Rebecca Howland said in the statement.

"We understand that other people, in similar difficult situations, might prefer to look for their own options in response to their needs.

"However, we strongly encourage anyone in desperate situations to contact the Department of Social Development and provide their information so they can be assessed on their admissibility to our programs and services."

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Shephard was questioned about the discrepancy in numbers in the legislature by the opposition and reporters Wednesday.

"That number was actually a surprise to us," Shephard told reporters.

"So we're trying very hard to rationalize that number, and I'm not saying it's wrong, I'm saying that's not a number that we've been working with. We were working with about 224 and so we need to figure out how that number was achieved."

On Thursday, Shephard said the province will work with the figures Goodwin presented at council.

She said the department will send a team to Moncton on Monday and provide additional "resources."

The province appears to have relied on the by-names list as part of an announcement in October that it would boost funding to emergency shelters to provide more spaces this winter.

A news release from Oct. 20 says there were 519 people homeless in the province's three major cities as of Aug. 31.

Guy LeBlanc/Radio-Canada
Guy LeBlanc/Radio-Canada

The province has yet to release any specifics about how the money will be spent and on Wednesday indicated it won't be used to add ongoing capacity this winter.

"The objective is to add beds to be available to homeless individuals in days of extreme weather conditions," Howland wrote.

Goodwin said it won't be adequate.

"It's great and it's something important and part of the solution, but it's not enough. It's not the whole solution. And I think as citizens and as a municipality, we need to start looking at the bigger picture and the whole picture."

He said that's what led to him calling on Moncton on Monday to open up arenas or other public buildings to use as a place for homeless people to go this winter.

Isabelle LeBlanc, a spokesperson for the city, said the issue is expected to be discussed at a city committee meeting later Monday.