The John Howard Society plans 12 unit homeless shelter in St. Stephen

Kathy Bockus/Courier The empty lot on King Street in St. Stephen near Prince William Street where the John Howard Society wants to build a 12 unit shelter for homeless Charlotte County men and women.

John Howard Society plans homeless shelter for St. Stephen

St. Stephen – The John Howard Society hopes to build a 12 unit shelter in St. Stephen, for homeless Charlotte County men and women.

Final details are expected within the next two weeks on the “housing first” initiative, Solid Foundations, which will feature single occupancy apartments. The building is expected to be constructed on a vacant lot on King Street.

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“There’s nothing solid yet, but it’s really close,” said Susan O’Neill, manager of the John Howard Society in Saint John. “When it does happen, it will happen all at once. We’re at that brink.”

She said there is a good chance the housing initiative will become an operational reality within the next two years.

“It’s a wonderful thing for St. Stephen. Future St. Stephen is 100 per cent in support of it,” said Richard Fulton, president of Future St. Stephen.

“We’ve been working with them a while, helping to get property transferred.”

Fulton said homelessness is an area “that needs to be addressed,” noting people often need “a hand up instead of a hand out.”

He said the shelter will allow people to get the help they need.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Fulton repeated.

St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern said he is “very happy” about the housing project, which has been under discussion for “quite a few years.”

“We were trying to find the right spot. Now the timing is right and there is a need,” said the mayor, adding he was happy the town could be a part of a project that “will fill a need in our regional community.”

Derek O’Brien, St. Stephen’s chief administrative officer (CAO) said the John Howard Society is scheduled to speak at a council meeting on Feb. 17.

He said the town demolished a building on King Street (the old Dinsmore’s Hardware store) after it was deemed an unsightly premise. Since then, the town has been looking for a developer for the property.

“Recently, the John Howard Society proposed the “Solid Foundations” project, and it fits perfectly in our municipal plan,” said O’Brien.

“Not only does it create a development for the community that will provide much needed retail / office space, it will also help us meet our goal to provide housing, and specifically housing and service to vulnerable people in our community.”

O’Brien said the project proposal is for housing on second floor of the building, with office and retail space, as well as other rental space, on the main floor.

He said Vibrant Communities Charlotte County has worked with the John Howard Society to help secure funding, and help find a good location.

O’Brien said he has personally heard “loads of stories” about people in the region who are “couch surfing”, staying with friends until their welcome runs out, and these apartment units will provide much needed housing.

The John Howard Society is a non-profit agency organization, which promotes and supports healthy and safe communities, by mobilizing partners and engaging families and individuals, while addressing the social conditions that give rise to crime.

It has similar housing first projects in Moncton and Fredericton. Saint John has smaller housing alternatives in various locations throughout the city, but not funded by the John Howard Society.

O’Neill said the St. Stephen apartments will be available to those who don’t have a home or residence to go to, and said the need for such a project was identified in Charlotte County about five years ago.

Within Charlotte County, “there is a substantial number that would overwhelm a 12 bed shelter.”

O’Neill said people often express surprise there are so many homeless in the region.

“They are hidden, especially in rural communities,” she said. “If you’re not in a big city, it’s hard to see the homeless. There are a lot of nooks and crannies in rural areas where they can be, not like ‘in your face’ on a big city street.”

She said the John Howard Society has evolved over the years, from one which originated to change the prison system and the way it worked, to reactive programming for individuals coming out of institutions, and integrating back into society, to becoming more preventative in nature, and working with all ages within a population.

O’Neill said the housing project is a cost effective one, explaining the apartments will house those chronically homeless individuals who, statistics show, are within the main percentage of those who utilize emergency services – hospital, ambulance, and psychiatric – as well as those who regularly impact the criminal justice system, social development, and other government funded health services.

She noted there is disproportionate number of mentally ill people within the criminal justice system. Those with mental illness, or mental difficulties, often find it hard to find and keep employment.

“It doesn’t matter the age. If one can’t pay their bills, provide themselves with food and shelter, it places them at an amazing risk of coming into conflict with the law,” stated O’Neill, explaining the reasoning for the John Howard Society’s emphasis on employment programs.

“The philosophy is to provide them a residence to begin with, with no conditions. Once they are housed, they are more ready and able to partake in counseling, in programs and services that would meet their needs. Employment will transpire,” said O’Neill.

“We have to start somewhere. Housing is a basic need and research backs it up.”

She noted Medicine Hat, Alta, has stated it has achieved eliminating homelessness.

“It’s a huge movement across North America.”

The John Howard Society has had an office in St. Stephen since last September. It currently offers a program targeting those 55 years of age and older, who are having difficulty with employment because of barriers created by changing circumstances like health, developing physical constraints, or skill sets that are no longer viable.