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Tent fire breaks out at Saint John homeless encampment, no injuries reported

Residents are concerned after a tent fire at a Saint John, N.B., homeless encampment during the weekend, the latest in a number of encampment fires that have broken out over the winter.

In a statement, Saint John Police Force Staff Sgt. Stephen Davidson said officers responded to a tent fire at the encampment in the area of Waterloo and Exmouth streets around 7:45 p.m. Sunday.

“Fire crews were also on scene and quickly extinguished the fire. Only a portion of one tent was reported to be burned,” he said.

“The cause of the fire is still under investigation.”

While nobody was injured in this case, area councillor David Hickey worries about the ongoing issue of fires breaking out as those who are living outside try to keep warm.

“The city has not been strangers to that, with 250 people sleeping on the street — we’re nearing 1,000 across the province,” he said.

“People need to heat themselves while they’re outside, and that means doing so in a very unsafe way and creating scenarios like what we saw here.”

Hickey pointed out that just last month, a 44-year-old man died of severe burns following a tent fire at a different encampment in Saint John.

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“We said it at the time of the last one … as homelessness continues to go ignored, these incidents will continue to happen,” he said.

“We need leadership at the provincial level that recognizes the urgency that our neighbourhoods are facing.”

Hickey is calling for more affordable community housing, as well as better mental health resources for those struggling with homelessness.

‘The community is falling apart’

Derrick May, who lives next to the encampment, said he learned about the fire from a concerned neighbour shortly after 8 p.m.

Upon going outside, he said he could see flames and the alleyway was “lit up orange.”

“It was just kind of chaos. There (were) fire trucks everywhere … police, ambulance,” he said.

“There were multiple explosions that shook the house, and that was very concerning. We’ve got small children in here.”

He said he woke up his children and moved them to a neighbour’s house to ensure their safety, as he was worried the flames would spread to his home.

While the fire was extinguished fairly quickly, May is worried about the impact of the encampment on the families living in the area.

“The community is falling apart. We’re put in jeopardy by this encampment that’s in back of us,” he said.

“There’s more than just homelessness here. There’s other issues, there’s challenges that they have that’s not being addressed.”

May said he’s concerned about drug use and crime in the area, and is urging municipal and provincial leaders to take action.

“We should have done better. We shouldn’t allow these people just to sit there, we need to come together and give them the help that they actually need: long-term treatment, then housing,” he said.

“If they don’t do something, it’s just going to get worse.”

Coun. Hickey said he understands that neighbours are “incredibly frustrated.”

“This is a working-class neighbourhood that … whether it be the housing crisis, whether it be the cost of living crisis, whatever it is, has been the front line of these really chronic community issues.

“What we’re seeing now is that elevated to a point where there’s fires breaking out in the middle of neighourhoods.

“And that really needs to be a call to action to say, it’s time to address homelessness in a real and meaningful way.”

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