Moncton needs winter shelter as homeless numbers top 400, say outreach groups
Churches, non-profits struggling to keep up with demand, desperate for provincial help as winter approaches
Mickey Maguire has been homeless on and off since the age of 14.
"I grew up fast, I grew up hard," said the 47-year-old, sitting on the steps of the First Baptist Church in downtown Moncton.
Maguire is among the growing number of people in the city who are living outside in tents, or in shelters.
He is receiving support from Rev. Chris VanBuskirk and volunteers at St. George's Anglican Church, the John Howard Society and the YMCA ReConnect outreach program. Right now, Maguire does bicycle repairs to earn a few dollars, but he is trying to get social assistance so he can rent an apartment with his partner.
He has spent past winters outside, but this year is hoping for a place to live, and help for his addictions and mental health issues.
"It gets tiring," he said of life on the streets. "It's hard on the head, it's hard on the heart and soul."
Non-profits, churches weary
Trevor Goodwin, senior director of outreach services at the YMCA of Greater Moncton, estimates there are more than 400 people experiencing homelessness right now, and knows there won't be enough shelter beds this winter to keep them all safe.
"We have double the people, if not more, outside than we did last winter," said Goodwin. We need a space for at least 100 individuals."
On Monday, Goodwin sat in the basement of St. George's Anglican Church to update a group of 25 church leaders and volunteers from different denominations on the plan for the winter.
Sitting in a large circle were mostly grey-haired people who cook and serve weekly suppers, deliver sandwiches, and try to help in any way they can.
VanBuskirk and his volunteers serve breakfast every morning from the church basement, and offer showers, bathrooms, laundry and Wi-Fi. In the past month, they have gone from serving about 50 people each morning, to more than 80.
"The affordable housing piece is certainly contributing," he said of the rising numbers. "There are others who really, truly want to be able to deal with their addiction, and are struggling to have the resources and supports to do that."
He worries his volunteers are wearing out after years of trying to help.
"I have zero answers," he said, pointing to detox, mental health, emergency and housing systems that are all failing.
"We have core systems that are broken."
Rita Beers, 84, has been volunteering at St. George's for the past three months as the shower monitor and says what she has seen has been "so surprising." She makes sure people stick to their 20-minute time limit, and on one occasion had to get help for someone who overdosed while in the bathroom.
Beers is a mother of seven, and is known as "Mama Beers."
"I feel for these people … because they're all age groups and I think to myself, I'm so happy that my kids are grown up and never went through this, because I'm not sure how I could have handled it if it had been my own kids."
She has given out hugs, and even given one man a haircut. She worries about the coming winter.
"It bothers me to think that some of them are still going to have to sleep outside … Are they going to be OK? Are we going to find them OK the next day? You don't know what's going to happen."
Justin Melanson, community outreach coordinator at St. George's, shares those concerns.
He is a recovering addict himself, but says as a veteran, he was lucky to be able to access help. Melanson says that's not the case for the people he talks to every day.
"The resources aren't there to really help them."
Melanson also worries about cold weather injuries.
"There was a lot last year. People just coming in and their feet would be frozen, people even losing toes. It's horrible to see the amount of frostbite."
Cost of living contributing to homelessness
Goodwin says the number of people becoming homeless is growing steadily — in part because of the availability of drugs, and in part because of the rising cost of living.
"I have seniors in their late 70s sleeping in tents because they've lost their apartment because they can't afford the rent that's gone up," he said.
Goodwin knows of 12 people who are living in their cars.
ReConnect has put together a plan for an out-of-the-cold shelter to operate this winter. The group submitted it to the Department of Social Development, but has yet to hear anything back, despite setting a deadline of Sept. 15 for a response.
"I feel like it's Groundhog Day," Goodwin said.
For the past several years, out-of-the-cold shelters have been organized at the last minute, but this year, he hoped there would be planning by the provincial government ahead of time.
"Here we are again, doing the same thing that we did last fall, and the fall before, and the fall before. People need to make a decision. People have to not be afraid to spend money, as we apparently have a $130-million surplus."
CBC News contacted the Department of Social Development to ask about plans for an out-of-the-cold shelter this winter in Moncton, but has not heard back.
"At the end of the day, housing is a provincial mandate and it's up to the province. They should be planning for this," Goodwin said.
Plan needed now
VanBuskirk shares Goodwin's frustration.
"I know that shelters are not the long-term answer," he said. "But we have a reality that's before us … there are still 200 plus people who are unhoused and winter is coming."
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Goodwin says non-profits and church groups are doing everything they can to help people experiencing homelessness, but the provincial government must step up and spend at least some of its surplus to improve the situation.
"We're not asking for $130 million. We're asking for the province to invest in the infrastructure that is needed for shelter and safety for those who live here, but also for affordable housing, so we can move people out of these situations and give them a better shot at life."
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