Saint John's homeless population has never been more visible

·5 min read
Romeo Paul, 38, says he never experienced homelessness before the pandemic and hopes to go back to work as a fisherman. Paul has occupied a tent in a park near Saint John’s Garden Street for the past six weeks. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)
Romeo Paul, 38, says he never experienced homelessness before the pandemic and hopes to go back to work as a fisherman. Paul has occupied a tent in a park near Saint John’s Garden Street for the past six weeks. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)

Romeo Paul says he used to be a fisherman supporting a family of nine, including seven children. Then came the pandemic and a cascade of challenges that forced him into a place he never expected to be.

Since mid-July, he's been living out of a tent — one in a cluster — that occupies space in a city park near Garden Street in Saint John.

From here he can point to other camps perched near the highway. Some tents are set up bright and bold. They have clear lines of sight from a busy road, bringing a better chance of attracting police if trouble comes.

They also draw attention to a growing problem that's never been so visible in the Port City.

WATCH | Rise in cost of living affects number of Saint John residents sleeping rough

"The sheer number of tents, I think, caught a lot of people off guard this summer," said Chris Gorman, who has helped lead homelessness reduction efforts through his work with the Human Development Council.

"As of the end of last week, there are about 55 folks here in Saint John who are sleeping rough. That's an incredibly large number for a community of this size. It's more than we've seen in the past."

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

Last winter, the Human Development Council worked with other social service groups to move more than 30 people off the streets. That's not all of the city's homeless population, which the council tracks on what is known as the by-name list. That fluctuating and confidential list identifies, on average, about 140 people.

Urgent cases rise to the top. For example, a newly homeless pregnant woman would become a priority. Ideally, she'd be paired with a landlord willing to accept a lower-than-market rent.

In a low-vacancy environment, it becomes more difficult to find landlords who are willing to work with the Department of Social Development's rent supplement program.

Rachel Cave/CBC
Rachel Cave/CBC

Under the program, tenants pay up to 30 per cent of their income for rent, and the government pays the balance.

Finding willing landlords to take part is increasingly challenging for the Human Development Council as Saint John's vacancy rate continues to shrink from 4.1 per cent in 2017 to 1.9 per cent last year, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

In a statement, Department of Social Development spokesperson Rebecca Howland said, "as of Aug. 3, Social Development has 4,856 rent supplements in circulation, and the annual budget is over $26 million."

The average annual rent supplement provided by the province is $5,559 or $463.25 per month.

There's also growing pressure on the public housing system. Howland said as of Aug. 1, there were 8,382 households on the provincial housing wait list. That's up from one month earlier. On July 1, there were 8,194 households on the provincial housing wait list.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

Gorman said the council and its partners are still managing to find housing for about six people per month, but the rising costs of rent and food are undisputed factors in why the list does not shrink.

"Without this increased inflow we've been seeing, we would be having remarkable success," said Gorman, expressing some frustration.

"Six is not nearly enough to reduce the numbers anymore."

Gorman predicted that as winter approaches, another 40 people will be homeless in addition to the 40 people in Saint John's two shelters.

Rachel Cave/CBC
Rachel Cave/CBC

The longer people go without a safe place to call their own, the more danger they may face in terms of finding their way back to who they were before, said Gorman.

Some develop severe substance abuse habits using drugs such as crystal methamphetamine, also known as meth.

"It's a hard life, no doubt about that," said Jason Green, who started visiting tent sites about a month ago, trying to determine what people need.

"Last week I stopped a guy walking up the road toward an encampment to ask him if that's where he lived. Turns out, he lived in the one that was hidden, that was right there and that I didn't even notice.

"But that's how you do it. You go and say hi. You have a talk with them like they're human beings because that's what they are."

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

Green's focus with the Human Development Council is finding homeless veterans and connecting them with support services.

They account for only a small number of those tenting, maybe one or two, he said. Still, the information he gathers is helping his group understand the current homelessness dynamics.

Of the 55 people living outside, about half are women, said Gorman. About 10 of them are under the age of 24, and a few are over 60.

"Those are very vulnerable populations," he said.

"Our job is to try to figure out exactly who is out there and who's going to need real supports and housing come the winter. We're really focused on that."

City identifies critical need

The City of Saint John wouldn't provide anyone for an interview, but in a statement said it recognizes a critical need to respond to poverty and homelessness and prepare for shelter needs this coming winter.

"The presence of tents or temporary encampments are a product of a more systemic challenge communities are facing," said the statement.

Rachel Cave/CBC News
Rachel Cave/CBC News

The city says it's finalizing its Affordable Housing Action Plan to identify what needs to be done to maintain safe, suitable, affordable housing options for all residents. It also created the role of senior manager of community support services, whose duties would affect people who are homeless.
  
There was no detailed answer to whether the city will ask any tent occupants to move, but a risk to safety would be a factor in such a decision.