New Brunswick

Outreach workers pitch 3 ideas to help solve homelessness crisis

A new affordable housing strategy from the provincial government isn't expected until April, but those who work on the front lines, helping people who are homeless, have some concrete ideas they believe could be part of the solution.

Front line workers share ideas they believe should be part of plan to solve homelessness emergency

Moncton outreach workers, from left, Charles Burrell, Darcy Cormier and Lisa Ryan, share their ideas to end the crisis and find shelter for people in the city who are homeless. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

A new affordable housing strategy from the provincial government isn't expected until April, but those who work on the front lines, helping people who are homeless, have some concrete ideas they believe could be part of the solution.

In the short term, outreach workers in Moncton are calling for an emergency shelter for the coming winter. They estimate 120 people are still living outside and they worry that someone will die unless a new out-of-the-cold shelter opens immediately.

While everyone agrees homelessness is a complex issue that will be difficult to solve, these front-line workers have three ideas they hope will be part of the affordable housing strategy.

​1. Medication for the mentally ill

Many front-line workers point to this as a huge problem that can be fixed.

When you're homeless, how do you afford medication if you do have a mental illness? You don't. And it causes barriers and makes it a lot harder for myself and other agencies to house people.- Charles Burrell

If you are homeless and without an address, you can't receive income assistance.

If you don't receive income assistance, you can't get what is known as a white card from the province.

If you don't have a white "health services card" from the Department of Social Development, you don't have access to prescribed medication.

Lisa Dow, executive director of the Employment Support Peer Helper Program, said people with mental illness need stability to move on with their lives. Access to a safe home, medication and ongoing support are a big part of that. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Charles Burrell and Lisa Dow agree this is an enormous problem. 

Burrell, co-founder of Moncton's Humanity Project, said he has paid for medication for people out of his own pocket on many occasions.

"When you're homeless, how do you afford medication if you do have a mental illness?" Burrell said. "You don't. And it causes barriers and makes it a lot harder for myself and other agencies to house people.

"I think getting people access to a white card would be a major step forward for our city and our province to allow people to get their medication, even while they aren't housed."

Charles Burrell of the Humanity Project has spent his own money to get people who are suffering from mental illness their medication. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Dow, who is executive director of the Employment Support Peer Helper's Program, works with people who are recovering from mental illness and want to return to the workforce.

She often sees people who are couch-surfing and need an address before they can qualify for provincial help with their prescription drugs.

"Perhaps they have no other way of getting medication, so they're reduced to maybe stealing or other kinds of things that will render them in trouble with the law, and the cycle is vicious," Dow said.

"Without the proper support systems in place nothing is going to change, so homelessness is chronic, it can be systemic, and it's not something that we just fix by giving people a place to stay."

2. Housing is more than a roof over your head

On the surface, it may seem the only thing missing for people who are homeless is an affordable room or apartment, but front-line workers say new apartments won't solve chronic homelessness unless those apartments come with support.

Darcy Cormier, community development co-ordinator with the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee, said funding for every new apartment must come with funding for a support worker. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Darcy Cormier, from the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee, said that support is critical.

"If they say, 'Hey Moncton — here's 50 subsidies to use to house individuals who are chronically homeless, we wouldn't have the capacity to support them right now."

Cormier argued that housing without support can often worsen the situation for individuals who end up being evicted for bad behaviour such as inviting too many people over or failing to pay the rent.

"There's only a certain pool of landlords out there and an increasing number of them are refusing to house individuals who are coming from situations of homelessness and experiencing issues of substance abuse and mental illness." 

Lisa Ryan, the director of outreach programs at the YMCA in Moncton and a support worker with the Supportive Housing Network, helps people who are making the transition from the streets to their own apartment.

Ryan visits her clients at least once per week. She said in the first few weeks, the biggest challenge most face is loneliness.

"When you have been used to sleeping with 50 or 60 individuals in a shelter and then all of the sudden you're in an apartment building by yourself, you don't have much furniture, you can't afford things like cable or a radio — so you're kind of left with this silence," she said.

Lisa Ryan, director of outreach programs at the YMCA in Moncton, said making the transition from the streets to an apartment can be a very lonely time for people and support workers are critical to success. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

"It's nice to be able to have someone you can reach out to and talk so that you don't fall back into the same, similar habits … things they couldn't control because they didn't have the supports they needed to be successful."

Most of us wake up to an alarm clock every day and think, 'Why can't everybody else,' but when you're an individual who maybe hasn't had much to look forward to … sometimes those little goals are what helps you move forward.- Lisa Ryan, YMCA ReConnect

Ryan said that weekly visit from a support worker helps people to set goals for themselves, which can be as simple as wanting to get up at the same time each day.

"So then we know that they've got to save money to get an alarm clock," Ryan said. "And maybe part of our visit is, 'Let's go to some thrift stores and look for an alarm clock.'"

Ryan said many of her clients don't have the support from family and friends and experience with regular routines that most take for granted.

"Most of us wake up to an alarm clock every day and think, 'Why can't everybody else,' but when you're an individual who maybe hasn't had much to look forward to … sometimes those little goals are what helps you move forward."

3. Repair rather than demolish derelict buildings

Finally, there is a desire to repair at least some of the vacant buildings in Moncton that are being torn down.

Charles LeBlanc, division chief for fire prevention and investigation with the Moncton Fire Department, believes finding a way to to repair, rather than demolish, at least some vacant buildings is worth looking into. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Charles LeBlanc, the Moncton fire division chief, said the idea of stepping in before buildings degrade to the point that they need to be demolished has merit.

"It's been discussed at my level," he said. "Is it possible that some of these properties can actually be refurbished for low-income housing?"

When you keep tearing things down and you're not building anything new, it creates a problem.- Charles Burrell

While LeBlanc said that kind of a project is "above my pay grade," he would love to see someone step up and explore the possibilities.

"Some of these properties with a limited amount of funds could be brought back to an acceptable level where people actually can move back in."

LeBlanc pointed to a vacant building in downtown Moncton that used to be a rooming house before it was condemned by the Fire Marshal's office. He estimated it would take $15,000 to make the necessary repairs.

Unfortunately, LeBlanc said, it's more likely the boarded up building will be demolished within a few months.

"The owner, he's just decided he's been basically using this property for 25 years now, and he doesn't want to put any more money into it and basically just walked away."

Charles LeBlanc tries to work with property owners to bring abandoned homes up to an 'acceptable standard' but said many aren't willing to do the work. He wonders if there is a way to repair these properties and make them into affordable housing. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Burrell believes Moncton needs a focused effort to replace the more than 40 rooming houses and abandoned buildings that have been torn down in the past five years.

"In the last year, there's been one across the street and one on the other side of the street that have been torn down here, and I've yet to see any new ones being built," Burrell said.

"When you keep tearing things down and you're not building anything new, it creates a problem."

About the Author

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for nearly 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please e-mail: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca