Fredericton city council will hear from the public tonight on a zoning amendment to permit a drop-in centre and nine assisted living housing units in the Sunshine Gardens area of Fredericton. To be heard at tonight’s city council meeting, the public has until 4:00pm today to register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The drop-in centre is currently being used by the homeless whose access to public space has been restricted due to COVID-19 protocols.
Dr. Sara Davidson on behalf of River Stone Recovery Centre submitted the application to expand the Phoenix Learning Centre on Woodstock Road into a two-story building for assisted-living dwelling units that would house people with complex health needs ranging from mental health issues, substance use disorder, age-related disease and physical health issues.
Last week, on March 17, Fredericton’s Planning Advisory Committee (PAC) voted 3 to 2 against recommending the rezoning application.
Of the city councilor PAC members, Ward 7 Councillor Kevin Darrah moved the motion to deny Dr. Davidson’s application. Ward 10 councilor John McDermid seconded the motion. Ward 2 Councillor Mark Peters was not present for the vote. PAC community member Neil MacKay voted with the councilors while community members Fiona Williams and Sandra Kolaczek voted against denying the application.
The Fredericton doctor wants the centre to be called the Sara Burns Community Centre. Police officer Sara Burns, 43, was one of four people shot and killed in Fredericton on August 10, 2018. Burns was an advocate for better mental health supports in the community. Burns’ widow Steven Burns, a local businessman, supports the centre.
Davidson wants the drop-in centre to transform into a place for people who are socially marginalized to engage in workshops, capacity-building opportunities, volunteer opportunities, and educational upgrading.
But surrounding residents are opposed to the plan and have sent letters to city councillors. They say they are concerned about drop-in users trespassing on their property, theft, and illicit behaviour from drop-in visitors.
Some of the neighbours of the drop-in centre say the city needs to address homelessness, but expressed concern with what they referred to as “illegal activities.” Some feared that the drop-in centre will reduce their property values. Others wanted the drop-in centre to be located in a non-residential area.
But not all Sunshine Garden residents are opposed. Angus Fletcher is in support of the centre in his neighbourhoood.
“The PAC’s decision to deny a zoning variance to the Sara Burns community outreach centre is a tragic reminder that providing shelter and resources to those who need it is not just a matter of building and staffing. If a member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness votes against resources for homeless community members, we need to question the city’s commitment to ending chronic homelessness,” said Fletcher.
McDermid, who voted to deny the application, served as a member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness. The Task Force has called for, among other things, a “Yes In My Backyard” campaign to address the stigma faced by projects such as that proposed by Davidson.
The location of the Phoenix Learning Centre was chosen because of its walking distance to the downtown core where additional support services such as the Fredericton Community Kitchen and Downtown Fredericton Community Health Centre are located.
To address residents’ concerns, the Phoenix Learning Centre has hired two full-time security guards, installed security cameras, rented two port-a-potties, ordered two outdoor shelters, and installed 45 indoor lockers for people to store their belongings. It also plans to build a living wall along the perimeter adjacent to the residential area.
This past January, the Centre held a virtual open house to engage and gain feedback from the community. They told the public that the Centre has had 2,442 visits and provided 545 showers and 2565 meals. The Centre expects that the number of drop-in visitors will decrease if the plan to house people in the City Motel is successful.
The proposed assisted dwelling units at the Centre are intended to prepare individuals for housing readiness before transitioning to the City Motel or their own unit once they are ready.
On March 19, the province of New Brunswick announced that it would provide $1.4 million in funding to convert the City Motel into housing for the homeless after the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation rejected the John Howard Society’s funding application for the project earlier this week.
“If people are housed, they do not need to carry their belongings with them in shopping carts, they do not need to do private activities in public places, they will receive optimal support to help with their stability and will reduce pressures on emergency services such as police, ER staff, and paramedics,” said Davidson.
According to the Phoenix Learning Centre, people in vulnerable situations benefit from the combination of being with their ‘peers’ and living in a ‘normal’ neighbourhood where they are not isolated from the average population.
“Studies show that the more integrated people are in the mainstream community there is a reduction in calls for emergency services such as ambulance and police. Overall, there is improvement in mental and physical health. It is much like interacting with peers, if people are treated with respect and kindness they tend to reciprocate it, both to themselves and those around them.”
Tobin Haley, a sociology professor and a resident of Fredericton who supports the centre, says she hopes that the city approves the zoning amendment and stands up to what she calls “dehumanizing narratives” about people experiencing homelessness and addiction that have been circulated by some who oppose the centre’s expansion.
“It is my understanding that there are many Sunshine Garden residents who support this evidence-based project wholeheartedly. I hope the city listens to them and gives Dr. Davidson and her colleagues, who are experts in providing services to this population, the support they need to do their job effectively; including the zoning amendment,” said Haley, who plans to speak at the city council meeting tonight.
Data Brainata is a permaculturalist-in-training with an interest in politics.
With files from Aditya Rao.