I often search in my reading for those who focus on solutions to poverty and homelessness. I quietly hope for ideas to find their way into reality, which brought me to the brainstorm of Marcel LeBrun in Fredericton, New Brunswick. LeBrun made his fortune in the tech industry with partners Chris Newton and Chris Ramsey, selling their business, Radian6, in 2011 for eight figures. Then LeBrun put his wealth to work to help those in need, specifically those without homes in Fredericton. He invested four million of his own money to build micro-homes and applied government grants to the project he calls 12 Neighbours. In January of 2023, the first community members moved into their new home, leaving tents and the street behind.
His idea was born from the concept of “love your neighbour”, asking himself what those words really meant. He gathered people together who had the skills to find solutions and were, like him, inspired to act on their ideas. But first LeBrun hired a group of young students to study three hundred organizations who were working to solve poverty and homelessness. They weeded the list down to ten, which LeBrun visited and filmed and studied their mission and vision and actions. He held up the words “dignity, community, and opportunity” as his roadmap. It is not as simple as throwing money at a problem; we must be prepared to give of our time, and humility is required, Le Brun says.
LeBrun spoke to Father Greg Boyle, who had thirty years of experience with gang intervention and rehabilitation in East Los Angeles. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries where they “imagine a world without prisons, and then try to create that world”. Boyle explained that not everyone has the same opportunity – some win the location lottery, others win the parent lottery or the education lottery, and some don’t win any lottery at all, and it has nothing to do with moral character. Mostly, it is just “dumb luck”, which the wealthy seldom, if ever, give credit to. Poverty does not just refer to money and home and job. “The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty,” said Mother Teresa. Poverty traps people and it takes all their physical and mental energy to survive, robbing people of their ability to dream of how to have a better life.
LeBrun learned that our social systems require those living in poverty to prove how poor they are, to show how broken they are. They must list their deficits to gain access to resources. Hesiod, a poet and farmer, wrote in 700 BC: “Shame is with poverty”. We are all more than our deficits. For those of us who do not live in poverty, we should feel shame that there are those around us who do live in poverty, and that shame should drive us to do better.
LeBrun went to work creating a system that first provided homes for those who need them and then ensured the necessary supports were in place – counselling, education – and remain in place. So often care and support has a limited timeline; ask any child in Canada’s foster care system. 12 Neighbours is a “person-centric, trauma-informed, recovery oriented, and strength-based” project and is a Canadian registered charity. Fully independent and detached homes with their own private yard are built in a warehouse following New Brunswick Green Building standards. Each home is 200 square feet with a bathroom, equipped kitchen, sleeping space for one or two, with living and dining area, and with solar panels on the roof. “We don’t give them dignity,” LeBrun says “They have it. We just remind them where they put it.” These tiny homes help residents feel in control of their lives again. In his travels and research, LeBrun witnessed that a sense of belonging to a community contributes to healing more than anything.
A Social Enterprise Centre is next to be constructed, creating a “patient path to employment and guiding people to pursue opportunities”, providing for personal and community development. Within this Centre will be three businesses – a café, an art and apparel shop where residents can sell their artwork to the public, and the micro-home factory building homes for the 12 Neighbours community and for sale to others. There will be community gardens.
LeBrun now wears works clothes with his two sons to build tiny homes instead of computer systems, though he does keep his hand in that game. He would like to see the list of those needing homes to get to zero in Fredericton. Perhaps his idea will spread, and homelessness and its causes will become a thing of the past. At the beginning of a new year, I can’t help but be hopeful and grateful for people like Marcel LeBrun and those who have helped him put his vision into reality.
We have come to think of philanthropy as giving money, explained LeBrun, but the Greek roots of the word really mean to love humans. Giving money is easy, says LeBrun, giving your time is much harder.