Temperatures have been gradually dropping in Fredericton during the last couple of weeks. Storms have blanketed as much as 15 centimetres of snow and freezing rain has frozen the ground. Throughout it all, nearly 120 people have been living in parks or tents in our city.
Homelessness constitutes a pervasive social issue in Fredericton. The already-existent emergency housing stock runs at full capacity. In 2017 alone, St. John House, the local men’s shelter, serviced 178 individuals. Grace House, the women’s facility, serviced 66 people. St. John’s House accommodates, on any given night, a maximum of 25 people. Grace House operates on a 10-bed capacity. Many in need of emergency housing are turned away. Such structural confinements have spurred the development of the so-called “tent-city,” an ad-hoc improvised area hosting those with no place to go. Located in proximity to St. John’s House, the tents host enough individuals to fill these very same shelters twice. The facilities operate on a 23-hours-a-day timetable, however, there is insufficient space to adequately address the housing needs of Fredericton’s houseless population.
Images of people living in tents might constitute a common occurrence within the nations confronted with a high influx of refugee entries. It is odd, however, to concede that tent-living is a stringent reality within one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Canada has the 10th largest global economy, with a GDP of $1.53 trillion, yet it lacks a national housing strategy to address issues of affordability and availability.
Things do not look better at the provincial or municipal levels. There is a lack of government support for those without secure housing arrangements: social assistance can only be accessed by way of providing a permanent address; and only 35 people can be accommodated within the current shelter structure. This number seems highly inadequate if one was to consider that the average population of Fredericton outnumbers 50,000. In doing the math, only 0.07% of the city’s population can access emergency shelter provisions. Yet in 2016 alone, 750 people in the city have experienced homelessness.
More so, Fredericton city council, in the spring of 2017, declined a proposed amendment to alter a zoning by-law that would have allowed a higher number of residents within rooming houses. Instead, the lack of affordable housing has become a highly individualized topic, whose accountability gets continually passed down to concerned citizens, public benefactors and underfunded NGOs. Donating clothing and cash does not merely show the benevolence of residents but also the state’s failure in taking responsibility for the matter.
Housing is a human right. It has been tabled as such by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948: the “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of (one)self and of (one’s) family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Lack of adequate housing also mitigates the distribution of subsequent rights, including the right to medical care or the right to education. People without a fixed address might not possess valid identification, such as a provincial health cards, meaning they might be unable to access the necessary medical care. Families experiencing homelessness might not be able to register their children within the school system, again, due to the lack of a permanent address. Difficulties in obtaining employment can be additionally noted. Housing provides one with the space to groom and care for one’s appearance, prerequisites most often needed to secure work. The lack of adequate shelter deprives a person of the right to life, liberty and security – rights that have been clearly outlined in 1948 at the United Nations General Assembly.
In theory, every person may have the right to life, liberty and security, yet the realities of homelessness leave individuals vulnerable to the manifestation of multiple forms of societal violence.
It is equally important to note that several external factors are at play in creating the ‘homeless’ subject. For instance, in Fredericton (and Oromocto), the current unemployment rate sits at 9.4%. This constitutes a dramatic increase from last year’s unemployment rate of 6.9%. Living without employment oftentimes leads to poverty, which, in turn, restricts one’s ability to access food, housing and basic living necessities. Addiction and mental health become additional pervasive issues. It is not only that homelessness can oftentimes constitute a consequence of mental illness, but also that it can amplify the mental health and addiction issues an individual may already be experiencing.
In early November, about 90,000 households across New Brunswick lost power due to severe weather conditions. Municipal officials in Fredericton were quick to classify the occurrence under emergency protocols and, in collaboration with community organizations and local businesses, proceeded with opening warming shelters across the city. Approximately nine warming shelters opened for Fredericton’s homeowners. Property holders could escape the cold, have a warm shower and a homely space to charge their electronic devices. Warming shelters shut down once the power restored. Meanwhile, more than 120 people have been sleeping in tents and surrounding parks for more than 170 nights. These are people living without power and heat for 24 hours a day, for days in a row. They are people considered not to be deserving of emergency protocols nor the provision of warming shelters.
In solidarity with the ‘tent-city’ residents, we are writing this public letter to ask for state support in remedying the issues of availability and affordability of Fredericton’s housing stock. We ask that all levels of government come together and thoroughly discuss adequate solutions to address the housing crisis that some city residents are confronted with, such as donating city surplus property to create additional shelters or building assisted houses on underutilized land. We believe that the right to affordable housing and the right to human dignity should belong to all people and should not constitute the exclusive privilege of property owners.
In solidarity, signed by:
Bachelor of social work students of St. Thomas University
Raluca Bejan, PhD, assistant professor, Social Work, St. Thomas University,
Tracy Glynn, PhD candidate, University of New Brunswick
Photo by Kristin Jewett