Not all people are criminals

Part 1 of a series about our city’s struggle against the poverty of money and morals

By Kyle Mullin

A sharp wrap on the door sets Valarie MacCullam stiff in her seat. The executive director of Fredericton’s John Howard Society runs a hand through her close-cropped hair, wondering which of the multiple personalities she’ll be met with by letting her morning’s lone guest into her office.

That guest sits slowly, hollow eyes wide, lips pressed tight in a thin line, only to open them and pour her heart out.

MacCullam left that door open, and that same guest returned to gradually introduce herself again and again, revealing each and every tic of the seven different voices rattling around inside her.

When she was fully acquainted to the vying wills of her ill friend, MacCullam had only one question to ask:

“Do they like me?”

She stiffened in her own seat and asked her host, “What do you mean?”

“If all the different personas like me than I have nothing to fear, and it doesn’t matter who I work with,” MacCullam told her.

“You mean you don’t want me to change?” all seven voices seemed to ask as one.

“As long as what you’re doing is not causing you harm, or harming anyone else, what do I care?”

“I’m tired of the world trying to change people,” MaCullam said in that same office years later, recalling that conversation as if she’d just met those guests yesterday.

“How many people have jumped off of bridges because the world tried to change them?”

Her hair has grown much greyer since then, but no longer – it’s still as bristled as her voice, rugged as the faded Levis and corduroy jacket she’s wearing.

It’s all a stark contrast warmth in her steely eyes.

“We’re not talking about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest when it comes to dealing with the mental health issues of the homeless. We’re dealing with anxiety and depression, same stick, different ends of it.”

MacCullum said the John Howard society is there to help the poverty stricken across town, and across the country, learn how to turn that stick into a tool for leverage instead of a burden. The society offers low income housing, career management education, and emotional counseling.

She said the society would be better able to do that in Fredericton by building a new center on the north side’s Main Street – one big enough to better offer those services in the lobby, along with more affordable housing on the upper floors.

But it won’t go up without a fight from the people who already live in that neighbourhood.

That new building may be big enough to house 250 non-elderly singles on a waiting list for subsidized housing – people dealing with deteriorating mental health, pressing prosecutions, or rejected EI applications, all looking for a fresh start.

But the proposed area for those non profit apartments is smack-dab in the middle of the area’s business district.

Families that live further down the road don’t share MacCullam’s enthusiasm about a halfway home being built in their backyard.

“These people have to be screened,” said Mary Ann Birney, a local resident who attended a meeting the John Howard society held in the Northside Senior’s Center on Feb. 18 to address the community’s concerns.

And Birney had several concerns that she wanted addressed.

She was bundled in a heavy lavender jacket that evening, from under its collar sprouted a green and purple shawl that was knotted so tightly it looked like a makeshift necktie.

Her glassy eyes blinked rapidly behind thick frames, as quickly as the rising edge in her voice, as she rhymed off the reasons why John Howard should plan to build somewhere else.

“A lot of kids bike the trail nearby, and with the type of people that’ll be staying in that building, you can understand why I’m upset,” she said.

“You can’t make any guarantees – there’s small businesses, families, and small children, all right there for them to pray on. They’ve got everything at they’re fingertips if they’re the wrong people.”

Most of Birney’s (and the community’s), worries stemmed from a petition released at a city council meeting a few weeks ago, the same meeting the John Howard society used to propose by-law changes for its project.

Along with a list of 24 signatures, the petition read:

“This building will house recently convicted felons with any type of criminal background … this can range from any type of sexual offender to violent offenders and murders.”

The petition had made its rounds over most of the north side.

Sue Steen saw it sticking out from under her neighbour’s door, only a few steps from the subsidized home she stayed in – the very same kind of apartment that the petition was maligning.

“I saw ‘John Howard,’ on it out of the corner of my eye as I was passing by,” she said.

“When I picked it up and read it, I nearly hit the roof. I thought to myself, ‘They think all poor people are criminals.’”

“This is fear mongering at it’s finest,” MacCullam said of the petition, adding that most of her clients are on the streets because of mental or economic ails, and not their criminal records.

“Eighty-five per cent of the folks we deal with do not have criminal records. We’re looking at people that are caught up in a cycle of poverty, and that cycle could lead them to a breach of the law just for survival.”

Mike O’Brien, city councillor for the North Devon-Fulton Heights area and the chair of Fredericton’s affordable housing committee, agreed with MacCullam. He said by offering those who’ve paid their dues an affordable place to stay the project can nip that poverty, desperation, and potential crime in the bud.

“There’s a rumor that this was going to be a den for sex offenders,” he said at the Senior Centre’s meeting, munching on one of the egg salad sandwiches served as hors d’oeuvres.

“But what we’re talking about here is affordable housing for the working poor, people with disabilities, and some who have served a sentence and are looking for a way to turn things around.”

“It’s not worth the risk,” Birney said. “A possible second chance for them is not worth having a single child in that neighborhood molested, or to have any of them end up the same way.”

“We’re not talking about second chances or trying to change people,” MacCullam said, adding that the home may only be a first chance for many who step inside.

“It’s about empowering people.”

Steen said the John Howard society has changed as of late, especially in Fredericton.

There hasn’t been a jail in the area for years so, rather than solely help ex-cons, the society’s programs were expanded. Now it offers applicants anger management sessions, courses that hone resumes and job applications, and avenues to acquire a GED.

Steen has worked for the society to offer some of those services after living as a resident there for years- but before that she was weighed down by her own bucket load of burdens.

She graduated from STU in 1997 with honors in sociology. But that degree didn’t open many doors – in fact she was afraid to even go knocking as her debt swelled.

Years passed and she lost more than time – she was evicted, clothes tattered, eight of her teeth rotted away by the icy filth of her new home on those downtown streets.

“I went for six years with no front teeth, and income assistance wouldn’t help me buy a partial plate. I asked them ‘How can I get a job looking like that?’”

She went to John Howard looking for a place to stay. Steen said the society did more than put a roof over her head. It was another way to look at life – not as a victim, but as someone in control. And after using those programs she helped facilitate them, and shared her story with people looking for a turnaround of their own.

“Now days, John Howard doesn’t do what it used to do,” she said. “It’s designed to be preventative, if you can do that you can get ahead of the game.”

“Most people acknowledge the need for that, until it’s planned to be built in their area,” O’Brien said, taking a glance at Birney, who had just snatched a sandwich of her own further down the table.

“She asked me how I’d feel if it was going to be built in my neighbourhood,” he added, his voice still half muffled by an egg salad mouthful. “Which is a good point. I think I’d still support it, but I’d have a tougher time to swallow it.”

“I’m tired of people saying where they don’t want us,” MacCullam said. “Tell us where you do want us, because it’s going to happen. If we don’t get this site, we’ll just find another.”

John Howard’s new Fredericton home may very well be built on the Northside, regardless of petitions or complaints the society has received most of the funds it needs through federal grants and municipal lenders.

It still needs to pass an environmental inspection, which may hinder construction until May or June, that obstacle pales in comparison to the tension that’s already built up in the community.

MacCullam had another guest in her cramped office the following morning. He didn’t have seven personalities – in fact with his sloped shoulders, 5 o’clock shadow and sullen stare, he practically had no personality at all.

“He told me, ‘Thanks for helping us second class citizens,’” MacCullam said. “I told him I didn’t see him in that way at all.”

And he told her, “No, but the world does.”

“That’s it in a nutshell. We don’t need to label the poor, they do it very well themselves,” MacCullam said.

“It’s not like we’re bringing the poor into your community. Poverty’s already there, all around us. And with the state of everyone’s credit, and how much debt most of us are shouldering, one broken leg or bout with stress, one leave of absence, and there by the grace of God go us all.

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