The site of a shuttered Anglican church in Saint John, N.B., is finding new life as a shelter for at-risk homeless youth in the city and region.
Safe Harbour Transitional Youth Services opened March 17 in the city’s south end. The land was home to the historic 140-year-old St. James Anglican Church on Broad Street—until, in 2005, the decision was made to close.
“The folks who worshipped at St. James, when their vestry decided to dissolve the corporation, one of their last requests was that the site, if possible, should be used for the benefit of the community,” said the bishop of Fredericton, David J. Edwards.
They hired the Rev. Paul Ranson, then an Anglican minister for the city’s south end, to see what that might look like.
Ranson said his instructions back in 2009 were to “go, speak with the people and listen to what God is doing, see where we can participate, but keep your mouth shut.”
“So I did,” he said, “for six months.”
Youth worker Colin McDonald, who moved to Saint John in 2007, grew frustrated with the lack of safe places to send young people in need of emergency housing. Other shelters were often full, and were focused on the adult population. There was no interest in creating a youth shelter, said McDonald, but he rallied the city’s high school students and tried to make as much noise about it as possible. In doing so, he met Ranson.
For Ranson, the moment arrived quickly for a decision to be made about the future of St. James.
“When the deadline started coming, I went down to the church building and I sat on the steps to pray,” said Ranson. “Lord, what do you want to do with this building? You name it, we’ll do it.”
McDonald, particularly upset that day, was driving along Broad Street. He noticed Ranson, and zipped into the church’s horseshoe driveway.
“I almost ran him over,” said McDonald. “And I unloaded on him all my frustration, anger, everything. Paul said, ‘What do you need from me?’ and I said, ‘I need someone to sit here and say, ‘Here’s a building, go use it.’ ”
Ranson replied to McDonald: “Here’s a building, go use it.”
The St. James’ community quickly got on board with the idea. McDonald said the early buy-in gave the project the legitimacy and momentum it needed. It also gave the problem of youth homelessness visibility.
“Youth homelessness is hidden,” said Ranson, who now works as chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School. “They could be at home with an abusive parent. They could be living with pimps or drug dealers or both, or they could just be couch-surfing.”
Ashley, a Saint John young person, spent a lot of time couch-surfing as a teen, all while trying to stay in school.
“There was one night, I don’t remember where I had planned to go that night, I just hadn’t thought about it,” she said. “I’d been so good with keeping track, but I’d forgotten that I didn’t have a place to go that night.
“It was that point when I hit it: I don’t have a home.”
The need is real—in fact, an estimated 200 youth are in the same situation in the city.
As awareness grew, more community organizations and citizens got involved.
Brendan Bates, of design firm Toss Solutions, jumped in to help with managing the project and designing the new building.
“This being my home and my community, I certainly want to make sure the youth have a safe place to put their head at night,” said Bates.
Though the original building was demolished, the façade of the new structure retains the church’s silhouette—and will have the old stained glass installed in the top window.
Safe Harbour will serve youth from 16 to 24 years of age, who can stay for short-term emergencies, or up to six months, until they can find permanent housing. The 10-bed facility has an open kitchen, laundry facilities, a library and an art room. Rooms are private, each with a bed, sink, closet and window. Washrooms are shared between two rooms. Chores and cooking will be shared between staff—who will be on-site, 24-7—and the residents. Once the youth are settled after a few days, they can start meeting with a caseworker to make plans about their life.
The first residents were expected to arrive on opening day, March 17.
“In the continuum of youth services, this is what’s been missing,” said Lindsay Gallagher, Safe Harbour’s residential director. “There’s been nowhere for people to go other than to go right into independence. They don’t always have those skills.
“Where we see Safe Harbour fitting in is filling that gap. They can come here and learn things like budgeting, cooking, cleaning—all of the things they need to learn to be successful.”
McDonald, who now works as director of youth and intergenerational ministries for the diocese of Fredericton, expressed hope that community and church members will stay involved in the projects, and make youth, who have so much potential, “part of the family.”
“Yes, we’re talking about you blessing someone, but in truth, the blessing you’ll receive in return is significant.”