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St. Stephen shelter location 'put on pause' after closed meeting with neighbours

Plans for a homeless shelter on Happy Valley Road in St. Stephen were paused after a meeting Thursday night, two days after the province had called the location 'finalized.' (Sam Farley/CBC - image credit)
Plans for a homeless shelter on Happy Valley Road in St. Stephen were paused after a meeting Thursday night, two days after the province had called the location 'finalized.' (Sam Farley/CBC - image credit)

Two days after the province announced that a location for a homeless shelter in St. Stephen was "finalized," the plan has been put on hold, residents say.

"Just to put it bluntly, we won," Andrea McCaffrey said after a meeting Thursday night to discuss the site at 24 Happy Valley Rd. that she, other neighbours and nearby business owners had opposed.

"It has been put on pause for now until we can help them find a suitable location."

The choice of Happy Valley Road was announced earlier this week, following St. Stephen's declaration of a state of emergency on homelessness in early December. The declaration, made after a homeless man died in St. Stephen, was swiftly declared void by Public Safety Minister Kris Austin, who called it "frivolous."

Thursday's meeting was restricted to neighbours and business owners from Happy Valley Road, and reporters were asked to leave just before it began.
Thursday's meeting was restricted to neighbours and business owners from Happy Valley Road, and reporters were asked to leave just before it began.

Thursday's meeting was restricted to neighbours and business owners from Happy Valley Road, and reporters were asked to leave just before it began. (Sam Farley/CBC)

The residents' invitation-only meeting Thursday with shelter proponents and MLA Kathy Bockus was scheduled to last 90 minutes but went on for more than 2½ hours. Jill Green, minister of social development, whose file includes homelessness, was not present.

A nine-page document that Neighbourhood Works, which was to run the shelter, prepared for distribution at the meeting said it would have been made of temporary trailer units for housing up to 24 people at a time, showers, storage, and administration.

Reporters were asked to leave the room just before the meeting started Thursday, and afterward, Bockus, who is also minister for seniors, gave a different account from residents of what happened in private.

She refused to confirm that the plan to put a temporary shelter on Happy Valley Road had been paused but said the neighbours' concerns would be evaluated.

This is not my meeting,"  Bockus said, although a town official told CBC News the day before that the municipality had not organized the meeting, and the rules, including the decision to keep most members of the public out, were made by the province.

After Bockus spoke to reporters, Mayor Allan Eachern said he was the one who got Bockus to confirm in front of the meeting that the site had been put on hold.

Mayor wants action from province, feds

"It certainly looks like it," the mayor said when asked if the location had been paused.

MacEachern would not comment when asked if he was disappointed but said the outcome "surprised-ish" him.

He expressed his support for Neighbourhood Works.

"I just hope we didn't knock the wind out of their sails a little too hard tonight," MacEachern said.

Jim Stuart, executive director of Neighbourhood Works, gave a brief statement to reporters, saying the meeting was meant to get feedback and his organization will evaluate and move forward.

Stuart, who has rarely been available for questions since the emergency declaration, declined to answer further questions from reporters Thursday.

Local MLA Kathy Bockus, the only provincial representative at the meeting, mislead reporters and refused to admit she had told residents the project was put on pause inside the meeting.
Local MLA Kathy Bockus, the only provincial representative at the meeting, mislead reporters and refused to admit she had told residents the project was put on pause inside the meeting.

Local MLA Kathy Bockus, the only provincial representative at the meeting, would not confirm the shelter location was on hold, although residents said this is what she told the meeting. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

MacEachern said the province and federal governments need take the lead on homelessness.

"We're just sitting here watching it unfold, I'm personally sick of it and I'm sure everyone is. We've got to recognize we've got to take action."

St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern confirmed that Bockus said the proposal would be paused, and said he was "surprised-ish" by the meeting outcome.
St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern confirmed that Bockus said the proposal would be paused, and said he was "surprised-ish" by the meeting outcome.

St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern confirmed that Bockus said the proposal would be paused, and said he was 'surprised-ish' by the meeting outcome. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

According to the group's FAQ, the St. Stephen shelter, there would have been 16 beds for individuals with addiction issues, and another eight beds would be dry, meaning alcohol and drugs are not allowed. It would have been a 24-hour shelter.

Two staff members would have always been present to ensure "a safe and secure environment."

The document said the area would be kept clean, and homeless people would be "discouraged" from loitering.

It also addressed generalizations levelled against the homeless community, saying that theft is not "exclusive" to them.

"This has been a challenging process, balancing the needs of the vulnerable homeless population with those of the town's residents and businesses."

Neighbour doesn't want 'drugs and criminals'

McCaffrey, who was an organizer of the opposition, said she was thrilled by the outcome of the meeting and added she and other residents would help find a another location for the shelter.

She was asked by reporters if she was concerned the town's homeless population, estimated at up to 100 people, who will now go even longer without winter shelter after this decision.

A screenshot of a New Brunswick Government press release put out two days before the meeting said that the location of 24 Happy Valley Road was "finalized."
A screenshot of a New Brunswick Government press release put out two days before the meeting said that the location of 24 Happy Valley Road was "finalized."

A screenshot of a New Brunswick government news release put out two days before the meeting saying the location of 24 Happy Valley Road was 'finalized.' (Government of New Brunswick website)

"Absolutely, they shouldn't be put in that situation," McCaffrey said. "But we as neighbours shouldn't be put in the situation of the drugs and the criminal part that comes with it.

"You can't put [the shelter] in the backyards of neighbours and not expect people to get riled up and excited."

She said that under the proposed plan, residents and businesses could lose money "because it's OK for these people to be tweaking out, doing criminal stuff, stealing stuff, damaging stuff."

She shared a list of over 20 questions that she and her supporters asked during the meeting. Many were about logistics of the shelter, how much security would be provided, and whether  property values would decrease. But other questions went further.

"What do we do if we see a 'druggie' flipping out?" was one question.

Another question on the list was who would take responsibility for damage, theft, and "safety of US. Are we not important?"

"How many of the homeless are from Charlotte County?" was another.

More empathy needed, says local volunteer

While many people who came out Thursday night were against the planned location, there were residents who could not attend because attendance was restricted but who wanted to voice support for the shelter plan.

Tanya Anderson, who lives in nearby St. Andrews, said she has volunteered for several years to cook and bring food for the homeless people in St. Stephen.

In an interview, she said she understands that maybe this location wasn't perfect, but St. Stephen desperately needs a shelter.

The land at the end of Happy Valley Road would have been used for trailer units to house 24 homeless people if the plan had been approved.
The land at the end of Happy Valley Road would have been used for trailer units to house 24 homeless people if the plan had been approved.

The land at the end of Happy Valley Road would have been used for trailer units to house 24 homeless people if the plan had been approved. (Sam Farley/CBC)

"We need to have a lot more empathy and understanding and a lot less judgment," Anderson said. "The community needs to come together."

When asked about the perception that the homeless population is not local, she said that's not true from her experience.

"We've got to keep that in mind, these people are our neighbours and we can't see them out on the street,
 she said. "Just think of them as if they were one of your own, your family.

"Is that where you'd want them?"