Why two cities in N.B. take such different approaches to people who are homeless

·5 min read
The proposed City Motel project would have 20 affordable housing units, space for 12 peer-supported units, two live-in helpers, offices for addiction, mental health and social workers, and a 24-bed emergency homeless shelter. (Photo: Gary Moore/CBC News - image credit)
The proposed City Motel project would have 20 affordable housing units, space for 12 peer-supported units, two live-in helpers, offices for addiction, mental health and social workers, and a 24-bed emergency homeless shelter. (Photo: Gary Moore/CBC News - image credit)

Two New Brunswick cities that face tough housing problems — a lack of affordable housing and a number of residents living outdoors — are responding in vastly different ways.

One city, Moncton, has decided it has a responsibility to try to ensure people have a roof over their heads. The other, Fredericton, has decided that responsibility lies elsewhere.

In Fredericton, where the vacancy rate is less than two per cent and more than 100 people are homeless, city council refused this week to support a project that would convert a motel into housing.

Some councillors said this is a social file that falls under federal and provincial jurisdiction.

"The moral imperative lies at the feet of the provincial and the federal government," said Coun. John MacDermid at this week's meeting. "They're the ones who are responsible for these issues."

MacDermid was one of six councillors who voted against a motion that would have seen the city provide a $900,000 grant to save the John Howard Society's housing project at the City Motel. The project was denied $2.9 million from a federal program, so the province said it would contribute $2 million and looked to the city for the rest.

While Fredericton turned down supporting a housing project that would have helped homeless people, Moncton has decided to spend $6 million over three years on housing through Rising Tide Community Initiatives, a non-profit group focused on tackling homelessness.

The funding was contingent upon the province matching the amount, which it has done.

Moncton Coun. Charles Leger says cities already spend money on the 'outcomes' of homelessness, so it's wise to pay attention to the roots.
Moncton Coun. Charles Leger says cities already spend money on the 'outcomes' of homelessness, so it's wise to pay attention to the roots.(Shane Magee/CBC)

Technically, housing is a provincial and federal matter, but Moncton Coun. Charles Leger said council's decision is creating more collaboration among all three levels of government.

"We all understand there are certain things municipalities are responsible for and there are things the province is responsible for," said Leger. "And I think the city obviously was in the same predicament as any other city.

"But at the end of it, at the end of the day, they are citizens. And really we needed to come up with a solution."

As a result, Moncton will see 125 affordable units built within three years. Its homeless population is estimated at about 200.

"The challenges are that you as a city spend an enormous amount of resources trying to deal with the outcomes of homelessness," said Leger, who's the chair of Moncton's Poverty and Social Inclusion Committee. "At the end of it, you're not dealing with the situation, you're not dealing with the root cause."

Fredericton council has long said housing is the responsibility of other levels of government, but there have been some signs of change, starting about four years ago. A mayor's task force on homelessness suggested the city did have an obligation to change course.

Fredericton Mayor Mike O'Brien says free bus passes for residents of a converted motel if a housing proposal succeeds would be a significant city contribution toward alleviating homelessness.
Fredericton Mayor Mike O'Brien says free bus passes for residents of a converted motel if a housing proposal succeeds would be a significant city contribution toward alleviating homelessness. (Gary Moore/CBC)

"The days of dismissing homelessness as a federal and provincial, not municipal issue must end," Mike O'Brien wrote in the report. "Personally, that response is no longer acceptable."

Despite his earlier words, O'Brien said he supported council's decision this week on the motel project, although as mayor he didn't cast a vote.

But the vote itself was close, 6-5, which suggests council may be moving in the direction O'Brien once advocated.

After the meeting, O'Brien said he hoped the project could find another way forward. He also pointed to the free bus passes the city has agreed to provide residents of the motel if it's converted into housing.

The bus passes, along what the city is expected to lose in property tax (about $20,000) when the building is no longer a motel, amounts to what O'Brien has called a city contribution of about $100,000 a year.

An advocate for the homeless tried to see a glimmer of hope in Fredericton council's decision this week.

Warren Maddox, executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters, says council's close vote on whether to support a housing project indicates a shift.
Warren Maddox, executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters, says council's close vote on whether to support a housing project indicates a shift. (Gary Moore/CBC)

"Five people voted for it," Warren Maddox, executive director of the Fredericton Homeless Shelters told Information Morning Fredericton. "And that's pretty impressive because five years ago or longer it wouldn't have been a 5-6 split."

He said the provincial government is not going to pass the entire problem homelessness down to municipalities.

"But as the citizens of Fredericton have told us time and time again, 'Deal with the homeless problem, deal with this.' And we're trying to — we need everybody at the table. We need the city the province, the feds. We need our agencies, we need the citizens, we need our churches.

"If there's one major player that's missing that becomes a problem."

An ethical duty, prof says

Eric Weissman is a professor at the University of New Brunswick Saint John who focuses on homelessness, housing and social policy.

"You might be able to argue that administratively, [housing is] not their role," Weissman said. "Morally and ethically — it's completely their role."

Homelessness and access to affordable housing can't be ignored by municipalities, which end up paying for such decisions in policing and other services.

"To say it's not the city's problem is to say my eyes are closed, and I'm not really aware of where I live," Weissman said.

"It's happening in the city, so it is a city problem. What they're saying is the financing isn't the city's problem."