Saint John police investigating after tent burned at encampment

Saint John Police's major crimes unit is investigating a fire that residents allege was started by arson Sunday at a managed encampment site on Waterloo Street.

Four people got out safely after the tent they were in at the supported encampment site on Waterloo Street and Exmouth Street caught fire, according to Fresh Start Services' executive director Melanie Vautour.

Vautour said residents allege someone arrived by car and threw an incendiary device at the tent.

"Individuals in the supported site heard a car door slam and the individuals in that specific tent heard it hit the top of their tent," Vautour said. "(They) looked up, they could see the glow through the tent, knew it was dangerous so they ... were able to get out before the structure collapsed."

Vautour said there were no injuries, and that the group has acquired surveillance footage showing the incident.

Anyone who needed it was relocated to shelters or other encampments, she said.

Saint John Police Staff Sgt. Stephen Davidson said the cause of the fire is under investigation, and that the major crimes unit has taken over the case.

On Tuesday, the major crimes unit posted video footage showing a silver car parking next to the camp on Exmouth Street. A figure is seen exiting the car and approaching the back corner of the site, then getting back in the car after a tent appears to catch fire.

Detectives say they're seeking additional witnesses and asked anyone else who may have footage or information on the individuals in the video to contact police.

The site is on land owned by Kaleidoscope Social Impact and managed by Fresh Start Services, which has been contracted to provide outreach services to the unhoused.

Vautour says the group helps manage supported sites like the Waterloo one and has teams to help with the prevention of homelessness and to provide housing support for people who get housed.

"Having homeless or unsheltered people in our community is challenging for everyone, but for us it is about moving towards better and more supported individuals who are living unsheltered, and moving toward making sure everyone is housed," Vautour said. "It is scary. If you're sleeping outside, there's a lot of risk to sleeping outside, never mind cold in winter, heat in summer.

"It creates a lot of emotion for everyone involved, whether you are supported or not, it's difficult for everyone to see ... but at the end of the day to purposely inflict harm on anyone is never appropriate."

Fire crews responded to a call at 7:41 p.m. Sunday to a fire at the encampment, bordered by Waterloo and Exmouth Streets, to find a tent on fire and "fully involved," according to Saint John Fire Department platoon chief Josh Hennessy.

"Crews rapidly deployed handlines to action the fire," Hennessy said. "Though the tent that was on fire was lost, they were able to provide exposure protection to the other tents."

Hennessy said there were no injuries. Crews had left by 8:18 p.m., Hennessy said. The cause of the fire was unknown, he said.

"One of the major challenges is understanding whether or not people are inside the structures," Hennessy said when asked about the challenges the fire posed. "Another one is the fuel load itself: tents and a lot of the materials that are on site at encampments are low-mass synthetics, and the fire grows rapidly with those materials."

Hennessy said containing it to the unit of origin without injuries "would be a best-case-scenario outcome given what crews rolled into," Hennessy said.

Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon called the allegation "horrible," saying arson in an encampment can "devastate" the site and residents.

"There is density in an encampment, many people in a small footprint," she said. "We all need to demonstrate a little more kindness. One curveball could put any of us in those shoes."

In January, 44-year-old Saint John man Evan "Peter" MacArthur died in a tent fire at an encampment in the north end after ensuring two others got out safe. His death led to calls for change, including a push for managed encampment sites.

Social worker Misty Schofield said she didn't see Sunday's incident, but responded at the site and spoke with residents as well as directed the police towards the surveillance footage.

"Everybody was out right away," she said, adding that fire crews "got here very quickly" and were able to put it out before it spread.

"I'll never understand the judgment of people whose lives you haven't lived," Schofield said. "I think we all need to be better and kinder."

The crews who responded Sunday had just been at the report of a fire at an encampment at the Courtenay Bay Causeway, with crews responding at 7:26 p.m., Hennessy said. That was reported as a fire outside, and nobody was on site when firefighters arrived and put it out.

Crews also responded to a grass fire at 5:37 p.m. Sunday in the Fort La Tour area, Hennessy said. The cause of the fires was undetermined.

On Monday, residents were sorting through their belongings in preparation for a move into transitional housing in converted shipping containers on site.

"That's our short-term goal, is to have people who are living with homelessness have a more secure and safe environment to be in, versus a tent, until we're able to get them into more supportive housing," she said.

Schofield, Fresh Start's Hope Team Coordinator, says her team has helped get 34 people into housing this winter.

"Evidence shows that permanent supportive housing works," she said. "People who are chronically homeless need permanent supportive housing to remove the barriers that they face from being chronically homeless."

Vautour said when she began with Fresh Start in 2009, there were about 15-20 homeless people in Saint John, but the population today is closer to 250-270 people, which is reflective of a "struggle" against homelessness across the country.

"To the public it maybe looks like nothing has been done. But in reality, behind the scenes, a lot of work has been done ... we're starting to see (solutions) be implemented," she said. "It's just that they are slow ... Reacting in the moment doesn't solve it."

Reardon said the city and province are working to find options, including expanding more beds at shelters including 16 more beds at the out-of-the-cold shelter on Somerset and a warming centre.

The mayor said many people get into the position "not because anything they've done," citing renovictions and issues in housing affordability. She said the "gameplan" is to get people into transitional housing and then provide them with services.

"Maybe people get frustrated with the tent sites, but we don't have that transitional housing to get people into them right now, and that's what we're working on," Reardon said.

Vautour said the response from the community since the fire, including prompt response from the police and fire department and donation of snacks and blankets, has made residents feel valued. She said the group's goal is to build relationships with residents and support them, as well as reduce the impact of homelessness on the community.

"For all of us, the outcome is to not have supported sites, it's to have supported people in housing, right?" she said. "We're just very glad now to be part of ... doing the work to get us closer to that goal."

Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal