New Brunswick

Shipping container shelters to replace tents at site of Saint John's most recent encampment fire

About a dozen unhoused people camping on Waterloo Street, including Robin Monks, whose tent was set on fire Sunday night, are hoping for safer temporary shelter when a pilot program launches in a few days. But not everyone is happy about the news.

Waterloo Street pilot will run until summer, cost $15,000 per container

A still from a video shows a tent fully engulfed by flames.
A still from a video captured by a neighbour that shows the tent going up in flames. Saint John police have released a video of a car pulling up beside the fence, a person getting out and placing something on the tent's roof seconds before it was destroyed by fire. (Submitted by Michael Wilson )

The night her tent was set on fire, Robin Monks couldn't understand at first what was happening. 

She was huddled with her boyfriend and two friends in a large encampment between Exmouth and Waterloo streets, where she and about a dozen other people have been living since the beginning of the summer amid a mess of overflowing dumpsters, refuse, propane tanks, and discarded furniture.

They were trying to keep warm in conditions that felt like -11 C with the windchill. 

At about 7:40 p.m., "we heard a car pull up," she said. "And then there was stuff hitting the top of our tent, and they were glowing."

A woman with a black eye and a black jacket stands in a parking lot holding a coffee cup.
Robin Monks has been living at the tent encampment since the beginning of the summer. Monks, her boyfriend and two other friends made it out safely after their tent was intentionally set on fire Sunday night. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

Monks and her friend started hitting the roof of the tent, trying to knock off the objects. 

"I heard the crackles and I realized it was actual fire," she said. As the tent went up in flames, "We all rushed for the other side to try to get out. We were all screaming for help."

Saint John police have released surveillance footage of a car pulling up on the Exmouth Street side of the encampment. A person can be seen getting out of the passenger's side and slipping behind the fence. There is a flash, the tent catches fire, and the person dashes back to the car. 

WATCH | 'This is a temporary solution that's really about enhanced safety': 

Shipping container shelters being installed in Saint John encampment

2 months ago
Duration 2:32
The six containers have been modified to provide electricity, heat, a bed and table, and have space for about a dozen people.

Forensic services and the major crime unit are investigating the cause of the fire, and police are asking anyone with additional information to come forward. 

The fire — one of several that have occurred at encampments in Saint John over the winter — comes just as non-profits are getting ready to pilot an outside-the-box, temporary initiative to shelter some of the people who need housing most. 

Shipping container shelters

Six shipping containers are being installed at 110-128 Waterloo St. by local non-profit Kaleidoscope Social Impact in collaboration with other community groups. 

Each container has been modified with doors and windows to create two 8x10 units, which will have electricity, heat, a bed, table and basic furniture. When complete, all six containers will have space for about a dozen people and cost $15,000 each. 

 A man in a beige jacket stands in front of a row of beige shipping containers
Six temporary shelters, constructed out of modified shipping containers, are being installed between Waterloo and Exmouth streets on land owned by local 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)

"We've been trying to manage the situation," said Seth Asimakos, founder and CEO of Kaleidoscope, which also owns the land. "People don't have anywhere else to go, and we weren't in a position to push people off this site."

Overseeing the site is Fresh Start Inc, a local non-profit the province has hired to provide outreach services to encampments in Saint John. Fresh Start will have an office in the temporary container village where they can connect residents with services, and build supportive relationships with people living there.

The goal is to get people into actual housing, rather than modified shipping containers, according to Fresh Start's executive director Melanie Vautour. 

A smiling woman stands bundled up in front of a row of colourful tents.
'The only way we're gonna end this is if we all do it together — to support rather than judge,' said Melanie Vautour, executive director of Fresh Start. The non-profit is overseeing the site and providing support to residents. (Julia Wright/CBC)

"This is a temporary solution," she said, and intended to provide some additional safety.

"Heat and electricity are way safer — a solid structure, versus a tent that is much more flammable. And then also the ability to lock doors, so that you have privacy and safety," said Vautour.

"I think collectively it's about finding solutions to support individuals and help them to get housed, and get what they need. The only way we're gonna end this is if we all do it together — to support rather than judge," she said.

A tent encampment with an old radiator sitting in the middle.
Debris, garbage, tarps and tents litter the ground on the site between Waterloo and Exmouth streets. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Asimakos agreed it's a temporary measure. 

"It is definitely not something that's going to stay," he said.

The shipping containers are a pilot that will run until the summer, when site preparation is expected to begin for a supportive housing development called House of Merit, said Asimakos.

Once the shipping containers are set up, all of the tents "will be gone," he said. 

Not everyone happy 

But people who live and own property nearby have been vocal in their opposition to the plan.

One of them is Ryan Gilmore, who lives on the east side but owns properties on either side of the encampment site, and across the street. As a developer, he says he's trying to build more badly needed housing. He said the encampment, and now shipping containers, are preventing him from finding tenants, and driving down the value of what he's trying to build. 

A man in sunglasses stands in front of a plywood structure.
Ryan Gilmore, who lives on the east side but owns buildings and property around the encampment, is upset zoning bylaws are being ignored in order to provide people with temporary housing in a short time frame. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

"No inspectors, no permits, no nothing," he said of the new shelters. "And I have a 28-page work order on one of my properties across the street that I'm forced to conform to to house people safely. 

"Why is Fresh Start and Seth Asimakos and Kaleidoscope able to circumvent zoning and circumvent bylaws and infringe on everyone else's safety? The people that pay the taxes and the working-class people, why are we forced to feel unsafe at the expense of other people who aren't even forced to follow the rules?"

In a winter where at least one person was fatally burned and another man lost his leg to frostbite because they didn't have access to proper housing, Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon says it's about saving lives until the winter is over. 

A shipping container structure is loaded into a parking lot under supervision by a man in a red truck.
The second of six shipping containers being unloaded at the site on Tuesday morning. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

"You can't fix this tomorrow. It's a matter of using what's available," the mayor said.

"We haven't turned a blind eye to it. We've turned a sympathetic eye to it. What would be the use of bringing the hammer down on a temporary site? We are trying to look at this through a harm reduction lens." 

As Vautour put it, "it's very difficult to stand outside in the cold and dream and hope while you're shivering and you just want to get back into the tent.

"We need these structures to be able to actually sit down and talk to people about where they can go from here, and how we can help them get there."

Grafitti on a grey metal door.
Graffiti on a door at the encampment site carries a message that there's hope for everyone. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Moving in soon

Vautour expects people will start moving into the shipping containers "next week, at the latest."

People currently living in the encampment will get first dibs on the units.

It's welcome news to Monks.

As Saint John police investigate the cause of the fire that destroyed her tent and belongings on Sunday night, she's still camping just a few metres away from where it all burned.  

A beige shipping container sits in a snowy parking lot.
Temporary shelters made of modified shipping containers are being delivered to the site this week. People are expected to start moving into the 8x10 units 'next week, at the latest,' according to Melanie Vautour, executive director of the non-profit Fresh Start. (Julia Wright/CBC)

She doesn't have anywhere else to go. 

"It's probably a lot better than our situation right now. Heated, with electricity and stuff. It's going to be a big, big step up," she said. 

"I just hope for better — for the future."

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.

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