'This is Moncton 2019': Struggle for affordable housing getting worse, not better
Moncton division fire chief Charles LeBlanc says homeless 'need to go somewhere,' but have few options
While eviction notices have been handed out to dozens of people living in tents and homemade lean-tos across Moncton in the past week, Charles LeBlanc continues to check on those still sleeping outside.
On Thursday, the division chief for fire prevention and investigation with the Moncton Fire Department was walking through an area that could pass as a campground — in a quiet downtown neighbourhood.
"It's cold," said a man leaving one of the approximately 15 tents that dot the area that is part of a former military base. "A little too cold to be sleeping in tents."
Many of the people emerging from the campsites were suspicious of LeBlanc. One asked, "Are you here to make sure we're stepping on our cigarette butts?"
LeBlanc replied, "I'm just here to make sure you guys are OK."
'It's just a homeless thing'
Gary Mills, 39, has been bouncing around the streets and Moncton's two shelters.
"I don't have anyplace to go," he said. "Three-and-a-half years ago I became homeless. My ex got everything and I got homeless. I've always worked for a living and I got nothing."
Mills said he has worked "on the oil rigs out West" and at a battery plant and wants to find a job.
"I'm thinking if I can't find happiness around here, like I've been here for two years now on and off, and I'm thinking I don't want to be here anymore."
Mills said he hasn't been able to find work because he is "too occupied doing something else."
When asked, "Is it an addiction thing you're dealing with," he replied, "No, not really, it's just a homeless thing."
"I came to the shelter two years ago, and I've had my wallet stolen there, all my clothes stolen over and over. I've had everything stolen from me over and over, and I can't have so much as a backpack."
'It bothers you'
On the other side of the tent city, a thin woman in flip-flops is sweeping the area in front of her tent.
There is a chair outside and colourful windmills attached to the trees with bungee cords, turning in the wind.
She has been living there since late May and told LeBlanc the neighbours in the house behind her love her because she is clean and quiet.
The day before, an RCMP officer told her she had to pack up and move within 24 hours.
She told LeBlanc she has nowhere to go and has been on a waiting list with New Brunswick Housing for an affordable apartment for 25 years. She wants to get back into customer service work.
"Talking to these people, I don't know who wouldn't feel bad about this," LeBlanc said. "There's some very fine people living here that are trying hard to get a better life, and sometimes it's just not working out."
As he walked back to his vehicle, LeBlanc had tears in his eyes.
"Twenty-five years she's been waiting and working and going through, obviously, a lot of personal stuff, some drug dependencies," he said. "But it is heart-wrenching.
"Just a perfectly normal person going through some hard times. It is hard. It bothers you."
Seeing more people on street
In the past year, LeBlanc doesn't think a whole lot has changed.
"I wish I could say that I believe that things are getting better but since last year, I believe there's actually been more people that are out in the street," he said.
"Some of these people are actually from out-of-town that are … coming into the city as there's a lot of the services readily available."
LeBlanc and his fire prevention team check regularly on about 55 vacant buildings that are boarded up because they are unsafe. Homeless people constantly try to find a way in as they seek shelter.
On Dominion Street, there are three old homes in a row, each one boarded up.
When LeBlanc pulled in to check on the properties, he finds two large homemade tents, a bicycle, bicycle trailers and shopping carts filled with someone's belongings in one of the backyards.
"Those are brand new," he said of the tents in the yard. "I was here yesterday."
"They have taken shelter here as some of them are likely being moved from the Albert Street area."
"What you see there — that's their whole world. That's all they have."
LeBlanc expects these new residents will also be told to move along in the next couple of days, but he doesn't expect they will go far.
"You know that probably within the next couple of weeks you're going to run across them somewhere else. Every few days we run into the same people, just somewhere else — different areas of the city."
Moncton shelters full
Both emergency shelters, House of Nazereth and Harvest House, are at capacity since the eviction notices were issued to people in tent cities in Moncton.
This is Moncton 2019, and we have have [more than] 100 … people living on the street.-Charles LeBlanc, Moncton Fire Prevention
Harvest House is prepared to accommodate people on mats or cots, but executive director Cal Maskey said it will still require government funding to pay extra overnight staff.
A new shelter announced by the House of Nazereth has run into delays, and there is no indication when it will open or how many beds it will have.
"As it stands right now, I don't believe there's enough places for these people to go," LeBlanc said. "And right now there's probably well in excess of 100 and some people around in our streets. So they need to go somewhere. If they have no shelter above them, they're going to be in our neighbourhoods."
According to the latest count by the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee, 134 people are living on the streets in Moncton, compared with 120 at this time last year.
LeBlanc believes shelters shouldn't be a long-term solution to homelessness.
"What we need to look at as a community is we need affordable housing and we need to go one step beyond [shelters]," he said. "We need to be able to turn these people around. To rehabilitate them and then steer them in the right direction.
"What I see everyday, like where we just came from — these people really don't deserve that. This is Moncton 2019, and we have have [more than] 100 … people living on the street."