New Brunswick

Saint John's homeless squad fast-tracks people off the street

A group of social service workers in Saint John says it's in the final stretch of a three-month housing blitz that will put 17 homeless people into furnished and subsidized apartments.

Housing blitz to put 17 people in furnished, subsidized housing

Movers taking a mattress into a one-bedroom unit on Coburg Street. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

A group of social service workers in Saint John says it's in the final stretch of a three-month housing blitz that will put 17 homeless people into furnished and subsidized apartments.

"This is action-oriented," said Chris Gorman of Saint John's Human Development Council, reporting that at least 10 clients have already been fast-tracked off the street.

"We have a meeting on Thursday at 11, and we know by that point next week, somebody's moving into a unit, like, that's fast."

Movers pick up a donated sofa to furnish one of the apartments. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

The blitz has been a collective effort by the city's emergency shelters and other social service agencies, including Outflow Ministry, Coverdale Centre for Women, Fresh Start and Housing Alternatives.

The Department of Social Development, which agreed to provide 15 rent subsidies, is also involved.

This same group of people is also responsible for some difficult decisions about who should get help first. 

By-name list

Gorman said the key is meeting face-to-face every week and using the information they've collected about clients.

It's called a by-name list and that's a phrase that's gaining currency among people who co-ordinate a community response to homelessness.

To be on the list, clients consent to being discussed by name and to having their personal information shared by the agencies.

It took this group just three months to find homes for more than a dozen people who were living on the street. 0:47

The agencies then decide who is a priority.

In the screening process, clients are asked about their history with tragedy or trauma, mental illness, domestic violence or substance abuse.

Do they owe money? Do they feel threatened? Are they pregnant?

As people come and go, or their situations change, that's noted in the list, which is revised every week.

"It's indicative of an important change and that is, moving away from homeless being quite hidden and faceless to actually … knowing them by name," said Michael MacKenzie, also with the Human Development Council.

Trust around the table

At a recent Thursday meeting, the group was down to choosing who would get the last five rent supplements.

As the discussion went around the table, people were asking some pointed questions.

How would a certain individual with a certain history manage a ground-floor apartment in an area known for drug use or sex-trade work?

A meeting of social agencies with Michael MacKenzie at the head of the table, and Chris Gorman on his left. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

What about housing these two people as a couple?

That would knock two names of the list, but is the relationship stable?

MacKenzie said it's also important to consider whether the person — such as a senior or a parent with children — would qualify for other programs.

"If somebody is at the top of the by-name list in terms of priority but Social Development feels there is another option available to that person and that they don't need to use one of the 15 rent supplements that we have, then they would say that at the table," said MacKenzie.

Landlords key

MacKenzie and Gorman said a local landlord played a critical role in their success.

Gordon Ferris, who owns 18 buildings in the city, was on board from the start.

He pledged to provide 15 apartments, enough to pair with every rent supplement that was being offered by the province.

He is also part of the weekly meetings and informs the group where the units are and what he's observed about the neighbourhood and the street and whether he thinks a prospective tenant would be a good fit.

Landlord Gordon Ferris attends the meetings as well. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

He said the two issues he's noticed are lack of housekeeping skills and what he calls "traffic."

"You have somebody moving into an apartment, all of a sudden, the people who don't have an apartment know where they are."

But Ferris said the group has supported him in resolving any concerns and he would like to continue working with them.

"I feel like I'm helping."

Looking for more partners

The group plans to do another housing blitz if the province provides more funding.

They're also looking for more backers.

This winter, Surplus Furniture donated enough sofas and beds and mattresses to outfit all 15 units.

And Ultimate Movers got that furniture where it needed to go

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