Begging to die: Volunteer on mission to help homeless in Fredericton
'I'm waiting to wake up one morning to a dead person,' says Jim Oickle, who gives shelter to homeless people
Inside a tent next to him in Fredericton's downtown, Jim Oickle can hear the sounds of men groaning and begging to die late at night.
"When you hear a guy asking God to take him home, you kind of lay there in deep thought going, 'Wow,'" he said.
At the beginning of June, Oickle set up tents near the men's shelter along Fredericton's Woodstock Road near the downtown.
The tents were intended for people who didn't have shelter but also to promote the need for more emergency shelter space across the city.
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But as temperatures drop and winter storms hit the province, he's doing it to help his friends stay alive.
Instead of spending his nights inside his warm apartment, the Fredericton man will settle into a downtown tent late at night, making sure people living in the encampment are comfortable. He wants to make sure they have a space to call home.
"I'm waiting to wake up one morning to a dead person," said Oickle, a former businessman.
While some people are just passing through, others are using the tents as shelter to stay alive during the latest string of cold winter nights.
"The bulk of what I'm dealing with now are people that are settled in for the winter, it seems."
There are eight tents set up near the men's shelter and they all belong to Oikle. This allows him to set rules and keep the area free of drugs and alcohol.
"We started out with about four [tents] … and it's just grown progressively as people have needed tents, he said.
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But while some might think people living inside the tents are struggling with alcohol and drug addictions, Oickle said most of them struggle with mental health issues.
"A guy in a tent next to me, he doesn't drink, he doesn't do drugs of any kind he just sleeps in this freaking tent and freezes his butt off," he said.
Although he receives moral support from the local shelter, Oickle said it's difficult when people in the area walk by and avert their eyes.
"I want to be out of sight, but I want to be in mind and the shelter is right there for us," he said.
Oickle said he plans to keep the encampment set up for as long as people need him. And he stays hopeful that Fredericton community will rally together and help as well.
Shelters don't always have space
Warren Maddox, executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters, has said the number of people using the service has risen by 50 since 2015.
And he expects there will be more if the province doesn't step up to help.
Maddox leads the group that runs two homeless shelters, which give about 40 people a night protection from the cold.
But the shelters don't always have space and all year, the shelter runs at about 90 per cent capacity and by the end of this year, he expects the shelters will have accommodated 300 individuals.
In an interview earlier this week, Maddox said the adult protection branch of the Social Development Department has been challenging branch to work with.
"I think that they need to accept more responsibility. They have a pretty rigid, tight, narrow definition of some of the stuff that they'll tackle."
Homelessness in Saint John and Moncton
Michael MacKenzie, co-ordinator of the Community Council on Homelessness in Saint John, said more people have used the men's and women's shelters so far this year, than in all of 2017.
The Outflow Men's Shelter — a 20-bed shelter with 10 overflow cots — is at 128 per cent occupancy so far this year.
He said the increase is caused by a number of problems, including the lack of affordable housing in New Brunswick.
The longer you're in homelessness, the harder it is to get out.- Michael MacKenzie
"There are situations where people experience homelessness purely for financial reasons," he said, "They lose a job, they're unable to pay rent. So for a few days or maybe a week, they're forced to spend time in a shelter.
"What's troubling is that over the past 10 years … we've seen a growing portion of the population that isn't bouncing back quickly."
MacKenzie said the city hasn't needed an emergency out-of-the-cold shelter in about three or four years, but it might be necessary to reopen one this winter.
In Moncton, the issue of homelessness has come under increased scrutiny ever since the city and RCMP demolished a homeless tent camp earlier this month, prompting calls for political action.
Shelters in the city have been operating over capacity. The YMCA's ReConnect outreach program reported recently that about 120 people are sleeping outdoors in the city's parks and tents.
"The longer you're in homelessness, the harder it is to get out," MacKenzie said.
Province gets involved
Dorothy Shephard, the minister of social development, who was just sworn in last week, wants to better understand what proactive steps are being taken to help individuals susceptible to homelessness in a timely fashion.
"We need to know if what we're doing is working and if it isn't, what are the tools that our staff need in order to rise to this challenge?" she said.
The new minister said there are many people in the department aiming for change, but sometimes the missed component is the client who actually needs help.
She recently started asking whether people in the department are visiting places like the tent site in downtown Fredericton or the people who were uprooted in Moncton.
Then she said the province needs to figure out a solution, which could include everything from involving community partners to working with federal and municipal partners to listening to homeless people themselves.
"Sometimes I wonder if their voice is as strong as it needs to be," she said.
"If you don't include the client to help assess the situation, we're never going to get to the root of why it's happening."
With files from Information Morning Fredericton, Hadeel Ibrahim, Gary Moore