Nowhere to go: Moncton homeless sleep on abandoned porches, in backyard tents
Dozens of dangerous rooming houses are boarded up, but Charles LeBlanc is hoping owners will make improvements
If you drive through Moncton's downtown neighbourhoods, you don't have to look far to find old homes with boarded up windows and doors.
On a cool November morning, Charles LeBlanc, division chief for fire prevention and investigation with the Moncton Fire Department, makes his rounds, ensuring these vacant properties are still vacant.
I'm not allowed to work anymore, so that's why I'm finding it hard to survive. You don't want to die under a pile of snow.- Donald Morel
As he goes from building to building, he watches the city's homeless getting up, and leaving their makeshift bedrooms on verandas, in homemade tents and in backyards.
"It's very rough," LeBlanc said as he inspected the front porch of an abandoned home on High Street. When he pulled up to the property, a young woman appeared and quickly walked away with her head down.
"Obviously, this lady has made her accommodations here on the front deck last evening, and this was just a place for her to keep warm."
On one side of the covered porch there are clothes hanging from nails on the wall and a yellow box of used needles. On the other side people have piled old suitcases, boxes and bags filled with their belongings.
It is clear people are using this porch as a home base. On top of one suitcase is a note that reads, "Jessica be a doll and don't touch my shit."
LeBlanc said the reality is that with many rooming houses being torn down or closed because of safety concerns, an increasing number of people in Moncton have nowhere to sleep at night.
"It is really sad to see these people, and a lot of these people … such as that young lady. It's obviously some of their lowest points in their life."
The old home where she spent the night will likely be demolished in the next few months, according to LeBlanc.
He said before the fire marshal closed the rooming house, there were 11 rooms for people with low incomes, but with windows painted shut, doors screwed closed and only one exit, there was no way he could allow people to continue living there.
Tragedy led to many closures
LeBlanc's fire prevention division started monitoring abandoned buildings in the city after a homeless man died in a vacant home on Gordon Street in 2013. He had started a fire inside in an effort to keep warm.
LeBlanc said "people are very desperate," but it's important to keep them out of these properties for their own safety, and the safety of others in the neighbourhood.
"We do have some homeless people that would like to get in … they will use all sorts of different things to try to keep warm, from starting fires inside to a number of different things that are very dangerous."
"Sometimes yes, we're here... 10, 15 times a week but it's well worth it to ensure the safety of the public."
Neighbours feel 'threatened'
At another large old home on King Street that's been boarded up, LeBlanc checks to make sure it is still secure.
Neighbour Lina LeBlanc, who was on her way back from the grocery store, stops to tell him that three people, who looked like they had spent the night in the backyard, walked out an hour earlier, as she passed by.
"We're now at a point that we'll likely be looking at having this building demolished because it is that dangerous," Charles LeBlanc said.
"This particular property was used for drugs and also prostitution," he said. "This is a property, unfortunately, that we had to evict a number of tenants due to a lot of extremely dangerous situations inside."
Among the nine people evicted when the fire department closed the building were a mother and her daughter.
"On that day it was very, very difficult for them," LeBlanc said. "It was difficult for myself and my officers that were here but by the end of the day they did find a much better place for her daughter and for herself."
The homes in this neighbourhood are close together, and LeBlanc is concerned that a fire in the abandoned fourplex could easily lead to the loss of the entire block.
Lina LeBlanc, who lives with her elderly mother, is worried too. She said the abandoned houses in the area are becoming "more and more of an issue."
With one next door to her home, and another across the street, she has felt threatened by the people who break into the boarded up buildings nearby.
"Last summer every time they would break into the house next door, they'd break into my baby barn. So my baby barn got broken into four times last summer."
I'm choking up a little bit. It's like this every day.- Charles LeBlanc , Moncton Fire Prevention
"At the end I just wanted to say, 'You can break in but you've taken everything that there is to be taken.'"
Lina LeBlanc said all of her tools were stolen, along with her ladder and recyclables. Her brother lost a box of Boston Red Sox memorabilia he had been storing there.
"Not a good feeling … always kind of walking on eggshells, keeping an eye out on the properties and not wanting to say that I am putting my nose in other people's business."
'It's like this every day'
As Charles LeBlanc pulled into the driveway of another boarded up home on Botsford, a shopping cart, some clothes and a homemade tent, camouflaged with branches, were visible in the brush between the backyard and the train tracks.
This is where Donald Morel, who is in a great deal of pain from bone cancer, has been living for the past two weeks.
Morel has been on the streets for most of the past three years. He lost his job as a roofer after he passed out, and emergency responders had to be called in to get him down.
"I'm not allowed to work anymore so that's why I'm finding it hard to survive. You don't want to die under a pile of snow."
Morel built his tent from a rubber tarp he found in the street, some house wrap that blew off the old Moncton High School and some scavenged wood and branches.
He has been staying warm with an old propane barbecue that he keeps in a metal bucket.
Last week, Morel was placed in a special care home and said he is "so happy."
Even though LeBlanc sees poor people in bad situations every day, it's still hard for him to see someone like Morel trying to survive.
"You see a gentleman like Don — it's heartbreaking," he said. "It doesn't matter how many times you do it … I'm choking up a little bit. It's like this every day."
"Every person and every tenant that I deal with, I try to deal with them the way I would want to be dealt with if I was ever in that situation or any of my relatives."
LeBlanc gives credit to all of the non-profit organizations in Moncton that are working to help homeless citizens but said it is clear more must be done.
"I'm not sure what the answer is … whether it's different levels of government, but as a community and on the humanity side of things, I think we definitely can do better."
With 27 vacant buildings in the city, LeBlanc said the goal is always to work with the property owners to make improvements.
Many of them think that the buildings must be brought up to current building codes, but that is not the case.
"We understand that these are older buildings and we never ask for these buildings to come back to today's code," he said. "We will work with them to bring it back to an acceptable standard."
An acceptable standard is typically achieved by resolving structural issues, ensuring there are safe exits and "a few improvements such as smoke detectors," which are "relatively inexpensive."
LeBlanc said his ultimate goal is to have buildings open and available for rent.
"If, for example, this is a duplex, it's for this building to be a duplex again and that people can live here. As long as this building is vacant it takes occupancy away from citizens of Moncton."