New Brunswick

Fredericton High School becomes haven for city's homeless

With classes cancelled and students at home, Fredericton High School had been sitting empty for weeks. Now, it’s become a safe haven for the city’s homeless population.

Out-of-the-cold shelter uses empty high school to provide space for social distancing

Fredericton High School has been transformed into an out-of-the-cold shelter to allow for enough space for proper social distancing. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

With classes cancelled and students at home, the Fredericton High School had been sitting empty for weeks. Now, it's become a safe haven for the city's homeless population. 

The out-of-the-cold centre, run by the Fredericton Downtown Community Health Centre, has temporarily set up shop in the high school to provide more space for proper social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school's gymnasiums and dressing rooms now house beds, each spaced out by two metres, or about six feet. People using the shelter also have access to the school's washrooms, showers and cafeteria. 

"It's like a dream come true," said Norm Charlesworth, who has been staying at the high school since Monday.

"I've slept more in the past two days then I have in weeks."

Norm Charlesworth has stayed at the newly relocated out-of-the-cold shelter since Monday, and says he's been getting the best sleep of his life. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Charlesworth said the space has offered a welcome change in pace to his days.

"When you're homeless, you have to be somewhere all day, and right now everything is shut down. You can't even go to a [Tim Hortons] or anything, you're outside literally all day."

"Now, you can just stay here and lay down, which is incredible."

To make way for social distancing, the city's out of the cold shelter has been moved to the Fredericton High School. 1:08

Charlesworth said the high school is where they are staying 24 hours a day now, and it's like nothing he's ever experienced. He's getting fed three times a day and can take a hot shower at any time of the day. 

"It's nice because now you've got some space around you," he said. "You've got breathing room.".

Working hard to find solutions

Joan Kingston with the Fredericton Downtown Community Health Centre said it's been a big team effort to make the transition to the high school happen.

"Everybody is working as hard as they can to find solutions," she said. 

"The people that work for the school district have been absolutely fabulous in terms of helping us to re-purpose the space. Obviously we don't have the whole high school but we have a good chunk of the open spaces."

Joan Kingston is the chair of the Fredericton Community Action Group on Homelessness. (CBC)

High school staff have been helping out with cleaning during the day, and a solid crew of shelter volunteers are continuing to come to the high school to help out.

The decision to move up to the high school was one driven by concerns Kingston was hearing within the homeless community.

"They, like all of us, were concerned about how they can stay safe," she said.

The high school's gym has been set up with spaced-out cots. People also have access to the school's showers and kitchens. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Between 20 and 30 people are at the high school now, and Kingston said they have the capacity to take in more.

How long they will be in that space will be determined by updates from public health officials.

Ready to adapt

Warren Maddox with Fredericton Homeless Shelters said they started planning for the impact of COVID-19 about a month ago to make sure they were prepared. Now, everything seems to be running smoothly.

"We've managed to create six six feet between every bed in the shelter," said Maddox. 

Other shelters in the city are implementing new strategies, too. Both the Grace Centre for women and the Brunswick transition home is allowing one person per bedroom. Meals are being delivered directly to the shelters, and cleaning protocols have increased.

Warren Maddox, executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters, says the best thing people can do now for the shelter is stay home. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"We're comfortable with where we are," he said. "We have capacity and flexibility within the organization so we can take one of our other two properties and turn it into an isolation zone if we need to."

Maddox said they've also tightened their isolation rules, and are asking people using the shelter spaces to stay inside. 

We have cable television and an X-Box and wi-fi throughout. So we're able to give them something to do during the day."

Maddox said the shelter is in pretty good shape, and are prepared with an arsenal of backup plans should things start to escalate.

"For me as an executive director it removes a fair amount of stress for me being able to say OK if this happens this is what we're gonna do," he said.

The shelter isn't hurting for supplies just yet. It has a steady stock of gloves for cleaning, and more hand sanitizer coming.

"If you really want to help us stay … home," said Maddox.

With files from Shane Fowler

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