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'Whatever we're doing is not working': CEO fears businesses will leave downtown Moncton if homeless crisis isn't solved

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Business owners in Moncton, N.B., gathered on Friday to discuss the growing issue of homelessness in the city’s downtown.

The CEO of the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce referred to the problem as a "crisis" during the meeting, with more than 200 people in attendance.

John Wishart says the situation has been building for years.

Last year’s homeless population estimate was 150 -- the latest estimate is more than 500.

“A doubling of those individuals within one year indicates that whatever we’re doing is not working and that it really needs an immediate call to action,” Wishart told CTV Atlantic’s Bruce Frisko during an interview Sunday.

Wishart says downtown businesses are having the most difficulties.

He says the Chamber of Commerce has received “many, many” calls from businesses in regards to vandalism, property damage, used needles and more.

“We’re concerned that it’s eventually going to hurt the reputation of the city as a good place to do business. So that’s why our four business groups spoke out on Friday with this call for help.”

Wishart believes the high homeless population in Moncton is partially a consequence of growth, stating that the city is growing “exponentially.”

“It just comes to pass that there are more people living on the edge and also I think the fact that Moncton seems to have a lot services that the homeless need. There’s several shelters, soup kitchens downtown, health care for them, a safe injection site, all within a 8-10 block radius. So I think that’s why we’re seeing a concentration of the homeless in our downtown.”

During Friday’s meeting, business owners asked both the province and the city to work together to solve the crisis.

“We don’t really care who takes the lead, but somebody in government has to,” Wishart says. “Somebody has to raise their hand and say, ‘We’ve got this. We may not have all the answers, we may not have all the cash, but we are going to take accountability and responsibility for finding solutions.’”

Wishart called the meeting a “plea for help” from the business community.

“Not only to protect the business climate downtown, but also those 550 individuals who are sleeping rough,” he says.

Last Monday, 35-year-old Luke Landry died in a downtown Moncton public washroom after he overdosed and couldn’t find a place to spend the night.

Wishart calls his death “tragic.”

“If that isn’t a call for action, a catalyst for action, then I don’t know what is. And we’re starting to see both levels of government increasingly talk, meet. It’s still talk though. We do want to see action and I think we need to see action within days – not months, or years.”

Downtown Moncton Centre-ville Inc., The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Moncton, 3+ Economic Development Corporation and Destination Moncton-Dieppe presented a five-part plan to help address and solve the issues seen across the city:

  1. The City of Moncton, Riverview and Dieppe direct the Codiac RCMP to address the frequent property crimes, assaults and open-air drug use.
  2. Moncton and New Brunswick government work together to ensure sufficient capacity at shelters to help prevent loitering, encampments and panhandling/squatting.
  3. Province implement a Mental Health and Addictions Court for the city with restorative justice and rehabilitation programs.
  4. Province invests in more resources for mental health and addiction recovery programs.
  5. Provincial and federal government and the City of Moncton provide and maintain additional funding for affordable housing and wrap-around services for the vulnerable population.

New Brunswick’s Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard said Friday that her department would work with others to deal with the homeless situation, but declined to offer any concrete financial commitments.

“Our four business groups were among a series of stakeholders who met with what she was calling ‘the tiger team’ -- they sent about 14 or 12 people into Moncton to meet with people to discuss this. And she responded late Friday afternoon,” Wishart says.

“The message which stuck with me is, she said, ‘We will not be talking about this issue in the same way a year from now.’ I mean that was good to hear … I would like her to say, ‘We will not be talking about this issue two months from now.’”

Wishart says he fears that some downtown Moncton businesses will move away if the situation isn’t dealt with.

“There was a Starbucks right on the corner of Main Street that they told us one of the major reasons that they left was because of social issues. And this is obviously a chain that operates in every major city in North America,” he says. “I think we figure that there might be others who are thinking likewise. And so we have to protect that investment downtown. Downtown Moncton represents only one per cent of the land mass of Moncton, but 15 per cent of the property tax. So it’s crucial that we keep business operating there.” 

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