A former bishop’s residence belonging to the Anglican diocese of Fredericton is serving as a temporary shelter for homeless people in the city this winter—but the city is asking that another place be found for this purpose once the winter is over.
In November, the diocese offered Bishop’s Court, a three-floor, six-bedroom house, as an overnight shelter. But on the day it was to open, November 29, the city announced that the building wasn’t in fact zoned for such a purpose.
An emergency meeting of city and provincial government officials resulted in an agreement allowing it to open December 1, and to continue operating until at least December 12, when a permanent decision on the shelter would be made by Fredericton’s planning and advisory committee. At that meeting, the committee voted to allow the shelter to operate until the end of March, as originally planned.
The report submitted by city planners to the committee states that the part of Fredericton in which Bishop’s Court sits is not suitable for a homeless shelter. The house is located in a neighbourhood containing some of the city’s stateliest homes.
“The property is within a stable low density neighbourhood, which serves as the ‘eastern gateway’ to the downtown, characterized by large elegant residential style buildings on large lots. Certainly, this would not be an appropriate location for this use on a permanent basis, and staff would not support a rezoning for it to be there long-term,” the report states.
The report also states, however, that there is an urgent need for overnight shelter for homeless people in the city, and that the Bishop’s Court project was widely supported.
“There is a significant and immediate community need and the Bishop of the Anglican Church has volunteered the use of this property. In addition, community health organizations, non-profit agencies and other volunteers worked together in support of this opportunity,” it says.
The report recommends allowing the shelter to operate until March 31—but that it permanently cease operating at that time. The recommendations were unanimously approved by the committee on December 12.
Reached the next day, David Edwards, bishop of the diocese of Fredericton, said he was glad the committee agreed to allow the project to go ahead—but hoped a more permanent solution could be found for the city’s homeless.
The idea of offering Bishop’s Court as a shelter, Edwards said, arose out of a November meeting he attended involving various levels of government and other groups concerned about homelessness in New Brunswick’s capital.
“Basically, the mayor encouraged us—the 30-odd people who were at the meeting—to come up with some sort of plan,” he said. “There was a big kind of push from all levels to make this happen, and I was able to offer a building that I knew was going to be empty for the winter…It was an obvious place, if it was suitable.”
Everyone wanted to act quickly, Edwards said, because of a recent report that 35 people in the city of just under 60,000 were living on the streets—and by late November, nights were already getting very cold.
Bishop’s Court has frequently sat unoccupied since January 2011, when then-bishop Claude Miller and his wife moved out. It has been rented out on short terms, and served as a student discipleship residence for three years. In November 2016, Edwards floated the idea of making the house part of a larger new building that could include space for institutions and individuals to rent. But meanwhile the diocese is continuing to figure out what to do with Bishop’s Court and other buildings it owns in Fredericton, Edwards said.
The provincial government announced it would commit $82,000 for costs, including pay for professional staff to work with volunteers at the shelter. Within about two weeks of Edwards offering Bishop’s Court, volunteers organized by the Community Action Group on Homelessness, a local group that is spearheading the project, had converted the house into an emergency shelter, at minimal expense. The main cost of the project to the diocese is heating the building, the bishop said.
The shelter is operating under the Out of the Cold model, a community-based and volunteer-driven means of providing “low-barrier” places for the homeless to spend the night. It was devised in 1988 by Susan Moran, a Canadian Roman Catholic sister, and has been adopted by many groups since then.
Although some neighbours have expressed concerns about the shelter, the idea has been well received by Frederictonians generally, Edwards said. As of December 13, he said, the shelter had been operating for several days at its full capacity of 20 people.
The Community Action Group on Homelessness, Edwards said, is hoping to build about 50 small housing units in the city in roughly a year, and to provide support to help people out of long-term homelessness.