Restoring dignity after homelessness in Fredericton

·5 min read
The Oak Centre is located in the former City Motel at the corner of Regent and Prospect Streets in Fredericton. (CBC - image credit)
The Oak Centre is located in the former City Motel at the corner of Regent and Prospect Streets in Fredericton. (CBC - image credit)

Staff at Fredericton's new Oak Centre, a supportive housing complex at the corner of Regent and Prospect Streets, say they are trying to create a homey, stable atmosphere in the former City Motel, where people who have experienced homelessness can feel safe and find whatever help they need.

After having nowhere to live, no one to understand them and no one to help them, residents of the Oak Centre "have their own space and are able to take authority over their own lives," said Andrea Perez, lead intensive case manager and operations supervisor.

"They're able to come here and kind of heal," she said.

The way services are spread out in Fredericton makes it hard for homeless people to get what they need, said Perez.

At the Oak Centre, "everything is in one place."

The centre fills "a major gap" by providing housing with onsite supports, said Vee Mariner, an addictions and mental health support worker.

"It's a really welcoming space," they said.

Perez and Mariner recently took the CBC on a tour of the facility, named, according to Mariner, to reflect the endurance and strength of the people who live there.

WATCH | Advocates explain why the Oak Treatment Centre needs to shake off its past

In the front lobby is a communal area that includes couches, chairs, a television and books. In an adjoining room on that main floor, there's a café and a kitchen where residents can prepare lunches.

Down the hall are 12 rooms, 11 of which were occupied, each with a private full bathroom, a kitchen equipped with a hotplate, microwave, mini-fridge, coffee maker, dishes and cooking implements, Wi-Fi, a Roku television, a desk and chair, a night stand, a bed, with bedding, and an air conditioner.

Perez said the rooms are generally fully occupied. The room that's vacant now will be filled by July 1.

The rooms look similar to when the building was a hotel/motel, said Perez, but they've tried to get rid of the hotel vibe, which brings back bad memories for many residents who spent unpleasant times living in motel rooms or other institutional spaces.

Flooring has been changed, cabinetry has been added, the plumbing was updated, exhaust fans and vents were installed for range hoods and laundry rooms were set up on each floor.

Edwin Hunter/CBC
Edwin Hunter/CBC

Residents each get three hours a week to do their laundry at no charge, she said. Their key fob lets them in at their appointed time. The fob is also programmed to give access to the front door and the room doors.

That level of security is valuable to many residents, said Perez, because for a long time they didn't have a living space they could lock.

The top floor has 21 units, but is otherwise very similar, she said, minus the Roku. Residents there live more independently and permanently and the units are subsidized by NB Housing.

There's also an area called the horseshoe that accommodates four people and a shelter in the basement that sleeps 30.

The Oak Centre is "low-barrier," meaning people are still allowed in if they're drinking or taking drugs.

Edwin Hunter/CBC
Edwin Hunter/CBC

"We ask people not to engage with substances on site," said Mariner, "but we can provide harm reduction materials so they can make whatever choices they want around substance use off property."

There are no questions asked, they said, which is an approach that helps build a rapport.

When clients feel like they're being treated "like a human being," said Mariner, it's easier for them to come in and talk.

Mariner said they have an open door policy. Clients can drop in to see them any time. And they socialize informally with residents daily.

A variety of options are available to those wanting to talk.

Edwin Hunter/CBC
Edwin Hunter/CBC

There are 22 people on staff, they said — 10 upstairs and 12 downstairs.

Mariner has a social work education and experience working at the Downtown Community Health Centre and on the Housing First team.

Perez's background is in criminology, psychology and human rights.

Other staff members include a social worker who used to be a math teacher and a case worker who used to be a realtor.

Submitted by Vee Mariner
Submitted by Vee Mariner

There are also two peer support workers, one of whom lives on site, and a maintenance person.

Some level of support is available around the clock — like if the washer or dryer isn't working or a neighbour is being too loud or a tenant just wants a juice box.

The peer support workers are people who previously experienced homelessness and struggled with mental health and addiction themselves, said Perez.

On the day of the tour, one of the peer support workers was accompanying a resident to a court appearance.

"We'll sit by your side and make sure you have someone in your corner," said Perez.

Edwin Hunter/CBC
Edwin Hunter/CBC

The help provided at the centre is completely "client driven," she said.

"They're the experts on their own lives," agreed Mariner.

The John Howard Society, which operates the facility, asked the CBC not to engage with any of the Oak Centre residents or record their images in order to protect their privacy.

Edwin Hunter/CBC
Edwin Hunter/CBC

"We live in a world that so stigmatizes people who are experiencing poverty, people experiencing homelessness," said Mariner. "And so to walk into a place where this environment has been created … It's just nice.

"I think it's helped restore a lot of dignity and a lot of self-determination and a lot of sense of self."

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