When Marcel LeBrun founded 12 Neighbours Inc. a year ago, he wanted to expand Fredericton's affordable housing offerings and bring a sense of community to people living in poverty.
Now, the not-for-profit has ramped up construction efforts, producing one tiny home per week and breaking ground on a long-awaited social enterprise project to support people dealing with workplace barriers.
"We're in the business of helping people overcome barriers to independent living," said LeBrun.
"That starts with housing so that you're warm and safe, and then coming alongside people to help them achieve their goals and employment is a really important part of that."
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The community now hosts 22 homes on a 24-hectare lot on the city's north side, including one house that is wheelchair-accessible, along with a foundation for a new café and retail enterprise.
The enterprise will employ tiny-home residents and people in the community who deal with obstacles in obtaining or keeping employment.
LeBrun said people will fill positions as baristas and retail clerks and will have the opportunity to learn woodworking skills to create products to sell in the storefront.
He said people who have been homeless, or suffer from mental health issues and substance abuse, face a host of barriers that prevent them from being independent or finding employment.
"When people are missing front teeth it's really hard to get a job, and it's hard to maintain a job if you struggle to show up on time and come to work everyday because you have chronic pain or you have mental health issues," LeBrun said.
He said people who deal with such issues need an employer who's willing to cut them some slack and let them work at their own pace.
He said the enterprise will offer "patient and progressive employment opportunities," meaning there will be room for staff to make mistakes and decide how much work they can handle so they're in an environment that prepares them for the workforce.
LeBrun said construction of the building is underway and he hopes it will be ready by next spring.
He had success with another project earlier this year when he hired four residents to build and sell picnic tables.
He said the social enterprise helped some residents immensely.
"We had one community member who really worked through their barriers, and now they're employed full-time and no longer on social assistance," he said.
Randy Burtch, a tiny home resident who helped build picnic tables last spring, said his life has changed completely.
In just a few months, he earned a full-time job building tiny homes for the 12 Neighbours community and no longer relies on social assistance.
"It's all changed … I'm able to do more stuff in life," said Burtch.
He said he did have difficulties when trying to find work, including old injuries that would flare up from time to time. But 12 Neighbours has been a positive experience.
Prior to living in his tiny home, Burtch lived in his car. He said he was recently able to buy a new car and a motorcycle.
"[It feels] pretty good. I can go out and do stuff, and I'm not as much of a burden," said Burtch. "They're pretty proud of what I've done here … I'm getting healthier, stronger."
LeBrun said two of the community's new tenants are people aged between 18 and 24, which marks a new important demographic for 12 Neighbours.
He said while examining homelessness in Fredericton, he noticed a gap in support for people who have aged out of transition housing at 18.
"Often, there's a bit of a glitch in the system where they age out to homelessness first and then end up on these lists where they qualify for housing," said LeBrun.
"That obviously is not ideal, so we're trying to get more organized… so they don't have to be homeless at 19."