Organizers busy following up on action items after public meeting

(Vicki Hogarth photo/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter) About 50 people turned out recently to a community meeting in St. Stephen to discuss concerns with challenges of drug use, homelessness and crime in the area.

ST. STEPHEN – The organizers of a public meeting held last month say they are working on the needs identified to tackle homelessness, mental health, addictions and crime in the area.

Brent MacPherson and Cheyann Matthews, with the group Take Back Our Town, said there was a good turn-out and a lot of information provided at the meeting that took place on Oct. 15 at The Vineyard.

The panel included RCMP Sgt. Scott MacKenzie, Jennifer Anderson-Apopei, manager of Mental Health and Addictions with Horizon Health, recovering addicts Chrissy Drake and Greg Campbell, the unofficial mayor of the 12 Neighbours Community Al Smith, and Richard Hyslop with the Needle Dog service.

Matthews called the panel “amazing” and “informative.”

“The panel was excellent,” MacPherson said. “There were a lot of questions from people there to various panel members and we were pleased that three councillors and the mayor were in attendance. Unfortunately, the MLA and the MP weren’t there. We were disappointed about that because a lot of the things that need to be put in place is going to require funding from basically the province or maybe the federal government being involved.”

MacPherson said the group plans to send a letter and meet face-to-face with Saint Croix MLA Kathy Bockus, and they also want a meeting with New Brunswick Southwest MP John Williamson.

“We’ve been busy ever since the community meeting between coming up with the action items, talking to more people, people contacting us to meet with them or speak to them,” said MacPherson.

Vicki Hogarth with CHCO TV will moderate a roundtable discussion on the action items and issues that arose from the meeting, MacPherson said, noting people will be invited to sit in on the discussion and the public will be invited to attend, but no date has been set.

“We’re now planning on digging a little deeper into the action items and the issues and reaching more people through doing a roundtable that will be recorded and broadcast on CHCO,” he noted.

Letters on housing and policing have been sent to St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern and municipal council, as well as the Municipal District of St. Stephen’s safety committee.

“We’ll have some more (letters) coming back out and to the safety committee on things that we’re addressing that we see as a concern,” said Matthews. “We do want to work with all levels of government. We do want to work with the safety committee in our community. We want to get these issues resolved as fast as possible.”

Since the meeting, MacPherson has been hearing about the lack of action from law enforcement.

“There’s many, many, many stories that we have heard from the community of police telling people their hands are tied and nothing was done,” he said. “We’re concerned about that.”

MacKenzie was also asked about the lack of drug arrests at the meeting, according to MacPherson.

“If we don’t get the drugs off our streets, or at least a big dent and deal with that, that’s a very important component,” he said. “They have less officers now so that’s common sense why we’re not seeing around-the-clock patrols in St. Stephen or other communities, even like St. George, so there has to be some changes there. We’ve identified some problems and things that we want to see some action on so it brings about the change and the community is going to feel protected, hopefully less concerned than they have and less fear.”

The group is encouraging the public to call 1-888-506-7267, said MacPherson.

“Now we have posted that toll-free number for the community if they see any crimes going on or anything like that to please call that toll-free number and you will be given a file number,” he stated. “The system is really broken, we’re seeing, and no wonder we’re in a crisis.”

Noting the group is also looking at a Neighbourhood Watch program, a provincial police force, getting laws changed, and renegotiating the policing contract that was signed in 2012, Matthews said it is important that the public report crimes taking place in the community.

“You turn that file number into Kathy Bockus’ office and keep that file number for your personal information so that you can have it as well,” she said. “Those numbers will go into a large database because when they do start putting out more officers in communities, if your numbers are up, then we’re going to get more officers.”

During the meeting, MacKenzie spoke about the closure of the St. Stephen courthouse, MacPherson recalled.

“The officers have to take the person that’s charged to Saint John for a whole day to attend court before a judge,” he said. “We thought, ‘why can’t that be done the same as Horizon Health does with say a patient with a specialist?’ They do it like videoconferencing and that wouldn’t cost a big arm and a leg. Why can’t that be done here in St. Stephen where the person charged can be before the judge that way, and possibly prosecutor?”

According to MacKenzie, a mobile courtroom would also help the RCMP expedite search warrants, Matthews noted.

“We need more policing bodies,” she said. “We need people to reach out to that number if they know stuff is going on and not take the law into their own hands. Vigilantism is not acceptable; violence begets violence.”

On the subject of a mobile crisis unit assisting police calls, Matthews said MacKenzie told her much of the crime they face is connected to mental health.

“We need mental health issues taken very seriously,” she said. “It’s a big issue we’ve taken on here and it’s just growing. We started out with a small group and now we’re well over 700 people in our group. We’re not just hearing from St. Stephen residents, we’re hearing from all around our area. It’s a big issue but we need to start somewhere. We can’t just put a band-aid solution on it, it has to be a permanent solution and we have to look at mental-health workers in the communities, we have to look at that mobile crisis unit, we have to look at halfway houses, support groups, rehab beds.”

MacPherson said housing is connected to crime.

“It’s well-proven that if someone has a roof over their head, that’s a very positive thing,” he said. “Housing is a component here.”

Ideas like co-op housing for low-income people, and sufficient services and housing for seniors require attention, Matthews noted. This goes beyond families to single people or couples without children, she said.

“There has to be a rental cap, there has to be something to protect people who are living basically with a minimum amount of money every day,” she said. “We have to look at a judicial rental board to protect people who are renting, and we have to look at somehow bringing in low-income housing, be it provincially funded or federally funded, and have it so that people have home security.”

More than a year ago, MacPherson toured the 12 Neighbours Community of small homes in Fredericton and spoke with owner Marcel LeBrun and Smith. He said LeBrun worked with residents in the area, as well as the city, after he purchased that property.

“We’re advocating for this area that we have a similar type community of tiny homes for people that are homeless, struggling, and possibly low income,” he said. “We went on another tour, and they have grown. They also have built an enterprise centre and everything they’re going to do at that enterprise centre is just mind-blowing and kind of exciting.”

MacPherson has heard that the warming centre will not open in the same location as last year.

“It’s getting cold and we have people living homeless and there are concerns,” he said. “The thing is the public is not being told nothing, so we have asked them to be more transparent and tell the public, ‘Are you looking into this, is there a plan, is there a date?’”

Jim Stuart, the executive director of Neighbourhood Works in St. Stephen, sent the group information on what programs they’re offering and their plans for the future, said MacPherson.

According to correspondence from Stuart, Neighbourhood Works offers showers and laundry services as part of their Street Outreach program, MacPherson said, noting they just started the Youth Launch, a skills-based program for those ages 15 to 29 without adequate employment, education, or training.

“I think they’re going to have eight rooms, or something like that. That’s great, that’s a positive thing in the right direction but there needs to be more low-income housing and housing,” he said.

Stuart said Neighbourhood Works will soon be starting work on the Youth Traditional Housing Project to prevent vulnerable youth from being on the street, noted MacPherson.

“I’m glad he talked about the youth because we’ve been digging deeper into people with drug addiction in the community,” MacPherson stated.

Stuart said in his letter that they provide donated winter items and offer community meals two nights a week, said MacPherson.

“Right now, the people that are homeless don’t really have anywhere to go,” he said. “We don’t have a soup kitchen here so there’s nowhere for them to go and get a hot meal.”

Matthews said there is a need for a local soup kitchen that serves daily meals.

“We need more public service groups to step up,” she said. “You have to keep them fed.”

According to the letter, Neighbourhood Works is working on a plan to meet the needs of the unsheltered and prevent others from becoming homeless, but they don’t have a concrete and funded program, said MacPherson.

“Anything that they planned or done, we would advocate funding for them,” he said.

Emily Rodas, a program director at Sophia House and a St. Stephen municipal councillor, invited the group to a sunshine breakfast, said MacPherson.

“They’re providing these services to women,” he said. “We’re digging in a little deeper to see what about the marginalized women or girls struggling with drug addiction.”

While Sophia House might be able to help adult and youth females, MacPherson said there are “very, very limited” services for men and boys with drug addictions.

“Sadly, that leaves out the youth males and the older males,” said Matthews. “Where do they get their addiction counselling and their services, and how do they deal with recovery and trauma?”

With the province’s population growing, Matthews said there is a greater need for services and workers.

“There hasn’t been a second look into providing those services, which is why our health-care system is so fractured,” she noted.

At the meeting, Anderson-Apopei said more funding is needed for mental health and addictions, MacPherson said.

“They do their best of what they have but it’s making full sense why we’re having, and why it’s such a crisis that the community is seeing,” he said. “We’re being hit with all these issues and no services.”

Matthews said Anderson-Apopei identified needs for more rehabilitation beds, more treatment centres, and more health-care workers. She said the panelists at the meeting detailed the importance of a methadone clinic in addiction recovery.

“We are concerned about that, that’s something that we do have to look at,” she noted. “We’re looking at a mobile crisis unit, as well and a harm reduction team. Those are things that we can help implement and help get started in the community.”

The meeting demonstrated the need for services like Needle Dog, Matthews noted.

“He explained about he started his group, he cleaned up over a million needles himself,” she said of Hyslop. “We need that kind of volunteer group here, we need a Neighbourhood Watch system.”

Matthews agreed with New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon that most of these services are centralized in Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton.

“All of these issues that are going on in our community are happening all over and if you’re in a rural community, there’s no transportation,” she noted. “We’re about an hour away from Saint John, it’s not possible for someone living rough who has addictions, who has mental health crisis, it’s not feasible for them to travel that hour.”

While looking into local addiction and counselling services, Matthews said she found that Briget Carter is the director of a mobile clinic on the third floor of the Charlotte County Hospital.

“It’s a primary health clinic but it’s also other services that they provide there, and the unfortunate part is because of financial constraints, they aren’t able to service the way they were originally set up for,” she said. “So we need to look at how we can get some monies put into that third floor clinic to make it more viable for people in the community, and at the same time, make it more visually known in the community as well.”

During the meeting, MacPherson said it was identified that there was no Al-Anon group in the region, but someone has since expressed an interest in starting up a local chapter.

“That’s in the works and that’s something that happened from our community meeting,” he said.

The keys to the group’s effort are compassion and understanding, Matthews said, noting the group is getting more information as they continue digging.

“There seems to be a large body of information that’s going with homelessness, that’s going on with that addiction piece, that’s going on with the policing in the community,” she said. “When we dig into the mental health services, again it goes back to we do need a medical referral to get mental health issues settled and supported. Whether you’re in addiction or you’ve been criminalized and spent time in jail, if you don’t have some place that you can go to, you’re put out on the street, then what happens? You just go back into the same thing. We need to better service these issues so that these people can progress in their own lives but also make our communities safer.”

Once they compile a report on what was discussed at the meeting and what has been learned since, MacPherson said the group plans to act as a watchdog.

“In the end, we’ll be doing a report on all the action items,” he added. “I think our role moving forward after that will be to make sure these things are put in place, advocating and lobbying for them.”

Jake Boudrot

A graduate of St. Francis Xavier University and a resident of Arichat, Jake Boudrot is an award-winning journalist with decades of experience as a freelancer, reporter and editor representing media outlets across the Maritimes.