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Residents at Saint John encampment set to move into shipping containers

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Melanie Vautour is the executive director of Fresh Start, a non-profit organization that overseas the tent encampment on Waterloo Street in Saint John, N.B.

She says Sunday’s tent fire has only heightened the anxiety of those living on-site.

“For everyone here, there is already a feeling that they’re not wanted, that they’re outcasts and they’ve been pushed out,” says Vautour, who noted it is disturbing and very sad that someone would do this to people who are already having a difficult time.

“There is a lot of hurt here to begin with and I think it aggravates and adds to that. Again this feeling that they’re not valued as human beings and they are not wanted.”

The major crimes unit with the Saint John Police Force are continuing to investigate the incident, urging anyone with any information or video to contact them.

The police force released a video Tuesday that shows a car pulling up beside the tent encampment along Exmouth Street at 7:38 p.m. Sunday evening.

An individual then comes out of the vehicle from the passenger side before disappearing off camera behind the encampment. Seconds later a fire starts, and the individual jumps back into the vehicle when the video then cuts off.

“It almost leaves me speechless in a lot of ways,” says Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon on the incident. “I just find it hard to believe that someone would be that inhumane to do that to someone. It is just terrible.”

Those living at the site will soon be moving out of their tents and into shipping containers. Fresh Start, in partnership with property owners and non-profit group Kaleidoscope Social Impact, are in the midst of installing six sea cans on site that will be complete with hydro and heat.

Each container has been split to create two separate eight-feet by 10-feet units that will have a bed, microwave, mini fridge, and other small furniture items all coming through donations. In total 12 units will be made with each container costing $15,000.

“When you think of women living outside in tents alone, there is no privacy or ability to close your door so to speak, and so we started working on the project to bring in sea cans until we can access housing for individuals,” says Vautour.

“Especially after the fire, residents here are talking about really appreciating the idea of locking the door and being a bit safer, so hoping to transition within the next week into the sea cans and then from there continue to look to house individuals off the street.”

Once the sea cans are move-in ready, by the end of next week at the latest, the remaining debris left by the tent encampment will be cleared away.

Fresh Start will also have an office in one of the containers to better service and build relationships with those staying on the site. The ultimate goal is to help those living in the containers find permanent housing solutions.

“It’s very difficult to stand outside in the cold and dream and hope about what your dreams might be for the future,” points out Vautour. “Whereas if you are sitting in a warm space with coffee having a chat you can start to believe in that again.”

Resident have had mixed feelings about the encampment since it first popped up. They are hopeful the new look encampment will be better looked after.

“If it is managed properly I think there is some hope there,” says resident Derrick May. “At least they won’t be dying in fires and tents, but they need to have more supervision on-site.”

Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon says the city has not turned a blind eye to the encampment situation despite what others have claimed. With one person having already passed away this winter in a tent encampment fire, and another having lost his foot due to frostbite, the Mayor is focused on getting everyone through the remainder of winter safely.

“I just would like people at least for February, March, April to give us a little bit of time,” says Reardon. “Give that crew a little bit of a break and let’s just try to work through this.”

The mini container village is only a temporary solution, with Fresh Start and Kaleidoscope set to break ground in the late spring or early summer on a new housing development for the space. The group plans to move the containers to a new location at that time.

It was also announced Wednesday that two of the city’s shelters have increased their sleeping accommodations for the remainder of winter.

The Outflow Ministry men’s shelter at 162 Waterloo Street has added 16 more beds for a total of 46, while the Coverdale Centre for Women down the road has added six beds for a new total of 67 between the two.

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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