Two of three fires linked to people seeking shelter: mayor

As St. Stephen grapples with the growing issue of homelessness, Mayor Allan MacEachern says two of three recent fires in the town have been linked to people seeking shelter inside buildings.

But the cause of the third fire – this one at a historic building on Milltown Boulevard on Sept. 19 – remains under investigation, officials say.

The RCMP have deemed the fire as suspicious in nature, but as of Thursday, the investigation remains ongoing, said RCMP Sgt. Scott Mackenzie.

St. Stephen firefighters responded to the fire at the two-storey vacant building in the early morning hours of Sept. 19, remaining on scene for several hours, fire Chief Sean Morton previously told the Telegraph-Journal. The building suffered significant damage, Morton said, but no injuries were reported.

MacEachern said the community is saddened by the loss of a historical downtown building, adding "it's something that we have been through before, and it's another one."

While some people are concerned in the community about the cause of this latest fire, MacEachern said it cannot be linked to people seeking shelter as the investigation into the cause is still ongoing.

An anti-homelessness task force was recently formed in St. Stephen to help the growing number of people in need of shelter. It was sparked in part after 12 people were evicted in August from a house by members of the province's Safer Communities and Neighbours Unit.

Now that winter is approaching, MacEachern said the task force needs to find ways to help people without housing get shelter. And although the cause of the Milltown Boulevard fire is still under investigation, he said he's concerned about frequent fires – period.

"Oh, I am very concerned, yes, because, you know, especially it can get into our downtown core, like these houses and buildings are tied together," he said.

"That last one was like literally two feet from the Bank of Montreal."

While there have been past incidents of people being moved out of the vacant Milltown Boulevard building that "were not supposed to be in there," MacEachern said it's better to wait for the facts before drawing conclusions about the cause.

Homeless population can become 'scapegoated'

That sentiment is being echoed by Kendall Kadatz, president of Future St. Stephen and a member of the community's anti-homelessness task force.

He said he had noticed a large overflowing garbage box sitting in front of the vacant building and there's also a nearby picnic table where many young people would hang out there. In his estimation, it's "really impossible" to attribute the cause of the fire to people seeking shelter in the building at this point in time.

"There's any number of reasons that [fire] could have started it," he said. "I'd be very hesitant to rush to a prediction that it's homelessness on this one."

The task force has so far collected, assessed and released the details of a survey to their group members based on the needs and information about the homeless population in the town, he said. The committee is now looking to pull resources together to arrange appropriate housing and an outreach worker that can specifically serve the affected individuals to understand their needs better.

As the homeless community has started to get attention around town, Kadatz said "suddenly the group can become scapegoated. It becomes their problem for every bicycle tire that goes flat."

Community members 'very angry' about fire

Built in 1882, the Milltown Boulevard building, now recently damaged by fire, had several occupants throughout the years, said St. Stephen historian Darren McCabe. He said the building was recently sold through a tax sale to a non-St. Stephen resident.

It is the only building in downtown St. Stephen with "ornate columns."

"It's been a very unique landmark in downtown and people are very upset, they are very angry," McCabe said, noting the other two recent fires were at vacant apartment buildings.

While McCabe said he doesn't believe that the Milltown Boulevard building would be considered "a total writeoff," that's ultimately something up to the owner and the insurance company to decide.

Rhythm Rathi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal