Homelessness crisis in NB soars, as does the cost of living

Inflation and removal of tenant support endanger the lives of many at-risk New Brunswickers

New Brunswick is battling a growing housing crisis across the province. Major rent increases, province-wide gentrification projects, and the pandemic are some of the many causes noted by workers and the unhoused. 

Advocacy groups estimate 1,100 people are experiencing homelessness, centralized in three major cities: Moncton, St. John, and Fredericton. Occupancy capabilities sit at 276 beds across the province as of October 2022.

Caitlin O’Rourke is a fourth-year psychology and sociology student working at one of the new emergency shelters in Moncton, attached to the YMCA’s Reconnect Program. The shelter is for those who are not able to access other shelters in the area. O’Rourke estimated about 60 people use the shelter daily, making it a vital element of some unhoused people’s lives in the area. She notes that the shelter is unable to provide consistent, comprehensive resources because of the high demand. 

Some supports that the shelter provides are overnight short- and longer-term shelter and warming areas, drives to the pharmacy, facilitating harm reduction services, and providing meals and advocacy support to help individuals gain employment or access other services and programs. 

The provincial rent cap, introduced in March of 2022 to accommodate for the financial strain on many New Brunswickers, expired on December 31. Across the province, renters are suffering from this, despite an amendment being made to the Residencies Act allowing up to 60 days to file a complaint against a rent increase instead of the original 30. CBC News has reported many stories of people living in Moncton experiencing between 55 and 94 percent increases in rent costs, merely days after the rent cap was removed. This is a major shift from the rent cap which restricted landlords to raising rent by a maximum of 3.8 percent annually.

Apart from the rent cap, the gentrification of New Brunswick has made it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing. Although the province boasts a lower cost of living than other provinces like Ontario and British Columbia, it faces extreme levels of poverty. A 2019-2020 study by the University of New Brunswick estimates that 1 in 5 people are affected by poverty and about 11 to 13 percent experience deep poverty, but those statistics have been gradually decreasing since 2016 due to increased social assistance programs.

The cost of living has not just been affected by housing, either. Groceries have been hit hard with inflation rates averaging 5 to 7 percent annually on everyday food items since the pandemic, the highest in decades. Some grocery chains like No Name (in Sackville’s Independent Grocer) have committed to a temporary price freeze since October, however, these promises are on the decline and will expire on January 31. 

Canada only formally recognized housing as a human right in 2019 under the National Housing Strategy Act, and recent movements toward supporting this right are underway. The New Brunswick government has promised $8 million over the next three years to support shelters’ operations and resources to combat the rise in demand. To offset the effects of inflation rates, shelters have been able to increase meal programs. O’Rourke explained that her shelter’s guests “are guaranteed to have at least one meal a day.”

O’Rourke also described how many other issues come to intersect with homelessness. Trauma, education, employment, addiction, and mental health are some of the many things she listed that exacerbate some of the issues that individuals face accessing housing. “These things can make it hard [for someone to] lift themselves out of a bad situation,” O’Rourke explained. 

The waitlist for affordable housing units is getting longer at an alarming rate. O’Rourke said that although one individual she works with has consistent employment, it doesn’t pay enough to afford on-subsidized housing. Because of this, the individual has been on the waitlist for an affordable unit for two years. 

O’Rourke also emphasized the importance of combined programs and noted the value of harm reduction programs that are essential alongside housing. Access to housing provides privacy and security that many do not have access to in a shelter and also creates opportunities for individuals to empower themselves to overcome addiction. O’Rourke described how many guests abuse substances as a physical and psychological numbing agent against their circumstances, and the risk of overdoses rises due to individuals self-medicating against the winter cold.

She explained how giving employees and guests in the shelter training with NARCAN kits, which help reduce or reverse opioid overdoses, was empowering and provided a sense of safety even outside the shelter. Since she began working there in mid-December, “we’ve been able to bring people back from overdose with NARCAN two times.”

The housing crisis in New Brunswick requires a high level of compassion towards those experiencing homelessness. O’Rourke explained that compassion towards people’s experiences provides them with a willingness to persist against the long waitlists for affordable housing and any other barriers they experience. “They’re always working together, they’re always there for one another,” she noted and emphasized that the stigma can be heavy on the hearts and minds of these people who are often dealing with problems outside of their control.

Apart from challenging stigma and providing compassion to shelter users, individuals can donate to shelters to help curb the cost of resources. Some suggestions include groceries, hygienic items, clothing (especially undergarments), and shoes. 

If you are a student experiencing a housing or financial crisis, please contact Mt. A’s Student Wellness Social Worker Darcy Cormier at 506-364-3254 or [email protected].

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