New Brunswick

As fire claims 2 more lives at Saint John encampment, first tenants arrive at shipping container shelters

In March, 14 people moved into temporary shipping container shelters in Saint John. It's far from ideal — but they're some of the lucky ones.

Pilot project will run on Waterloo Street until the summer, says Kaleidoscope Inc. founder Seth Asimakos

A man on a pink BMX bike poses on the street with a man in a black hoodie holding a red broom.
Jessy James Boyce, left, and Matthew Tobias know each other from the streets of Saint John. Tobias just got temporary shelter in a modified shipping container, and Boyce recently moved into an apartment with friends. (Julia Wright/ CBC )

Matthew Tobias's new shelter is basic and cramped: an 8 X 10 plywood box inside a beige shipping container. 

"Just four walls, a roof, a door, a window," Tobias said. But with heat, a fire extinguisher and a fire alarm, it's better than the makeshift camp he lived in before, on the side of Highway 1 between Saint John and Rothesay. 

"My camp was the same size, same layout. But this is a step in a different direction than what I was." 

Tobias is one of the lucky ones.

A woman lies in bed in a tiny bare room with grafitti on the walls.
Tobias invited CBC in to see the unit he shares with his girlfriend. It's basic, but at least it has a roof, four walls and heat, he says. (Julia Wright/CBC)

On Monday, two people were pronounced dead after a fire at an encampment less than a kilometre away on Paradise Row — the third deaths in Saint John in 2024 after Evan McArthur was fatally burned at a fire near the same site in January.

Another Saint Johner, Jamie Langille, lost his leg to frostbite. Other New Brunswickers without housing have died this winter in St. Stephen and Fredericton.

WATCH | 'Four walls, a roof, a door and a window':

What it's like to live in a shipping container shelter

2 months ago
Duration 2:48
Fourteen people have now moved into the temporary shipping container shelters in Saint John. The 8-by-10 foot plywood boxes are still better than the alternative.

Tobias, 36, grew up partying and having fun "in the country" in Grand Bay, he said, but became addicted to alcohol and other substances.

He dreams of getting into "an actual place, not even in the city. I'd like to have my son, the mother of my son, a house. A place where everything could be good."

Until he's able to do that, however, he — and 13 others — are living in temporary shipping-container shelters at 110-128 Waterloo St.

The site was formerly a large tent encampment, which was cleaned up and dismantled in mid-March.

"People are trying to do better for themselves," Tobias said. "There are people out here that want the help to get out of here."

A man in a black Ecko hoodie and a black baseball hat stands in front of shipping containers.
Matthew Tobias, 36, says he became homeless because of addiction. His dream is to get out of Saint John and into a place of his own in the country. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Containers to move this summer

Local non-profit Kaleidoscope Social Impact and other community groups installed the six modified containers at a total cost of $150,000. Each has two tiny units with limited electricity, and basic furniture.

"People are safe, secure and in shelter," said Kaleidoscope founder Seth Asimakos. "We want to help people get to a better place. This is a better way to do it than what was happening here on this site before." 

A line of multiple modified shipping containers with small windows and shopping carts parked outside
Now that tenants have moved in, one of the challenges is keeping the parking lot clean and free of garbage and debris. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Fresh Start Services are onsite 15 to 25 hours a week, meeting with residents and handing out snacks, coffee and support from a tiny office.

The site is also monitored by Fresh Start via a live video link. 

"So far so good," said Asimakos. "It's in its early stages, but hopefully a number of [residents] will actually be able to sit with Fresh Start staff and plan the next stage, and transition to another apartment."

A man in a beige jacket stands in front of a row of beige shipping containers.
Six temporary shelters, made from modified shipping containers, are being installed between Waterloo and Exmouth streets on land owned by non-profit Kaleidoscope Social Impact. Founder and CEO Seth Asimakos says the pilot program is expected to run for the next several months. (Julia Wright/CBC )

Some residents asked to leave 

Robin Monks, 38, was the victim of an act of arson at the former tent encampment in February. Someone pulled up in a car and threw a flaming object at the tent where she and her boyfriend were staying, engulfing it in flames.

The case remains under investigation by the major crime unit, according to Saint John police. 

A woman in a bring pink jacket and a pink baseball hat.
Robin Monks, whose tent burned down in a fire on Exmouth Street in February, lost her unit in the modified shipping containers after she encountered 'complications' with the rules for tenants. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Monks is feeling physically healthier, she said. She's recovered from a broken nose from a fight in February, before the fire happened.

But while she initially received a place in one of the shipping container units, it didn't last. 

A woman with a black eye and a black jacket stands in a parking lot holding a coffee cup.
Robin Monks, pictured in February, days after her tent was intentionally set on fire. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

"I was only in there for a couple days and due to circumstances we ended up getting evicted," she said. Her boyfriend brought a puppy inside, violating the rules. They've been "trying to get back in, but we're struggling."

Melanie Vautour, executive director of Fresh Start, said part of being able to stay is "actually being engaged and wanting support."

"You have to be agreeable to our outreach team doing random visits to inspect your unit and also work with them toward building tenancy skills."

A woman in a pink scarf and a blue Irving jacket stands in front of modified shipping containers.
Melanie Vautour, executive director of Fresh Start. (Julia Wright/CBC)

There's zero tolerance for violence, pets or excessive noise. 

Tenants get a few chances — and if things still aren't working, are asked to leave "with the hope that they maybe become agreeable and have a chance to come back," Vautour said. It's only happened to two residents so far.

Despite Monks's struggles, "I hope for the best," she said. "Hopefully something works out for us."

'Rebuilding trust' in the neighbourhood 

Rules and support are exactly what neighbour Derrick May wants to see.

His girlfriend and her two young daughters live in on Waterloo Street, directly overlooking the encampment. He said they've seen "pretty much everything you can imagine," from fires, to petty crime, to open drug use. 

A tent encampment for unhoused people.
A large tent city that started between Waterloo and Exmouth streets at the beginning of the summer of 2023. In February, local non-profits started work on temporary shelters made of shipping containers. (Julia Wright/ CBC)

Now, "at least it's cleaned up. It's not intimidating here anymore. People can walk by and not have to see big piles of garbage and stuff like that. 

"This isn't ideal, but we all have to live in this community," May said. " We need to start building these relationships and start building trust again," May said. 

A bearded man in a burgundy toque stands in front of a shipping container.
Derrick May, whose girlfriend and her two daughters live in an apartment on Waterloo directly beside the encampment, says neighbours would have liked to see more consultation with the community before the project went ahead. (Julia Wright/CBC)

'We don't need to be that way'

For each of the 14 people sheltering in the shipping containers, dozens more don't have housing, or are on the brink. As of March 1, Vautour said, there were 301 homeless people in Saint John. About half are sleeping rough, while the other half move between shelters, couch-surfing and sleeping outside. 

Jessy James Boyce was visiting friends in the shipping containers. He didn't have housing for eight years, he said, before he got a place with friends "as of about a month ago."

The situation on the streets is "the worst it's ever been," Boyce said. "Even with the little bit of help the government does give on top of people's welfare cheque, it's not enough. It's not enough to feed yourself or live — whether you have roommates or not."

"The poverty and everything that's taking over — we don't need to be that way. We got some of the richest people around in Canada, here in this province. We should be taking care of each other no matter what."

A man in bright clothing rides a pink BMX bike.
Jessy James Boyce lived on the streets for almost a decade but recently got into an apartment. Conditions on the streets in New Brunswick are the worst he's ever seen, he says. (Julia Wright/CBC)

He's happy to see his friends getting temporary shelter. 

"You give them an opportunity and see where they go with it, you know? That's all we can do and hope for the best," he said. 

Lacey Hayward, 38, became homeless in March 2023 after being renovicted. 

"I'm one of those rare people that I'm not homeless because I'm a drug addict or addicted to alcohol or any such other thing. I literally had basically a case of bad luck," she said. Last month, she moved into her own apartment with support from Fresh Start. 

A woman in a green coat stands in front of an row of modified shipping containers.
Lacey Hayward, 37, recently got into an apartment with help from Fresh Start. She became homeless after being renovicted in 2023. (Julia Wright/CBC)

"I am happy that these containers are there," she said. "It's certainly an improvement over the tents."

The containers will stay on Waterloo until June, when Kaleidoscope intends to start breaking ground on the site for a new 12-unit supported housing program called House of Merritt. 

After that, the shipping containers will be relocated. It's not yet clear where. 

Tobias has some frank advice for Saint Johners who aren't comfortable seeing temporary shelters installed in their neighbourhood. 

"Open your mind up," he said.

"This is the next step for people in getting something better for themselves. Just be thankful you're not here, and you're not living like this." 

A man stands in front of a shipping container with a bicycle.
Matthew Tobias stands in front of the unit in the shipping container unit, which he just moved into a few days ago. (Julia Wright/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Wright

Host, Information Morning Saint John

Julia Wright is the host of Information Morning Saint John on CBC Radio 1. She previously worked as a digital reporter focused on stories from southwestern New Brunswick. She has a master's degree in English from McGill University, and has been with the CBC since 2016. You can reach her at julia.wright@cbc.ca.