Halifax councilors have rejected a recommendation to turn parts of Halifax Common into designated encampments for the homeless, during an evening of tense and emotional discussions on the issue.
Councilors pa*sed other motions that include leasing private property, using surplus municipal land and finding campgrounds and outdoor facilities for shelter.
Max Chauvin, director of housing and homelessness for the municipality, accompanied by general manager Cathie O’Toole, presented the update of the strategy to combat homelessness to the regional council on Tuesday.
Both O’Toole and Chauvin began their presentation by calling the options “band-aid solutions” in the midst of a growing crisis.
According to a 2018 survey, there were 18 homeless people in the community. Data from July this year from the Sleeping Rough survey revealed 178 people were homeless, and this number is believed to have increased.
Additionally, according to By Name from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, as of August 29, there were 1,012 people experiencing homelessness in HRM.
“A colleague recently noted that the list was growing by essentially 10 people a week,” Chauvin told advisers.
“As homelessness increases, the need for humanitarian a*sistance increases and the level of suffering we see in parks and on the streets is staggering. »
The report makes five recommendations, including leasing private property for people to shelter in, allowing homeless encampments on Halifax Common, and allowing more encampments or temporary housing on “all types of properties owned by the municipality,” such as parking lots.
“It’s not a good short-term solution, but there are no good options to deal with the crisis we’re facing now,” Coun. Waye Mason after the presentation.
“Allowing tents is not the cause of homelessness. It’s a symptom of a broken system.”
Councilors vote against Halifax Common encampment
Using designated camp sites is an option Halifax turned to last summer. In 2022, the municipality created five designated sites, intended to accommodate 44 tents. According to the municipality, a count carried out on August 14 revealed that 90 people lived there.
“In addition to the designated locations, over the past year, 62 additional encampment sites have been set up by people experiencing homelessness. At the time of writing this report, approximately 30 of these undesignated locations are active,” the report notes.
Undesignated sites include about 40 tents at Victoria Park, about 17 tents in Grand Parade outside City Hall, and smaller, secluded park spaces with one or two tents.
“We are seeing a more dramatic increase in the number of people sleeping rough than expected,” Chauvin said.
“It will be at least double next year, but it could possibly be more.” »
The report suggested creating a new designated encampment at North Park and Cogswell streets in the Halifax Common, which would provide 20 spaces. The two dustball diamonds on the north side of Common would then be converted into a larger homeless encampment at the end of the season on October 31.
“This site will be regularly monitored to ensure it does not expand into other areas of the Halifax Commons,” the report states.
Allowing tents there would have required an exception to a criterion set in June 2022 that prohibits the use of an active sports field for encampments.
But councilors expressed concerns about allowing tents on the Commons and ultimately voted 10-4 against approving the exception.
“I don’t support the Commons solution, but I fully understand why it was proposed and we need to find other solutions,” said Mayor Mike Savage.
“It’s not a question of whether we want them in tents, they’re in tents because they have nowhere to go. The question is: what do we do?
Others were concerned about capacity issues facing other designated encampments and whether this would happen on the Commons.
“I’m not sure we can control this,” said Coun. Shawn Cleary, regarding tents extending from the designated location.
He added that due to extreme weather conditions, especially in light of Hurricane Lee which hit Atlantic Canada this weekend, the priority should be the creation of indoor shelters.
“These people are going to have to go inside Saturday, Sunday, where are they going to go?” he said.
“We are overwhelmed by this problem, and as the least resourced level of government, it’s staggering.”
“We have to solve this problem”
Other councilors echoed this concern and expressed anger at the provincial government.
Advice. Mason, who represents Halifax South Downtown, said the province hasn’t built enough housing since it took on the role in the 1990s.
“The government seems to think the problem will resolve itself. It won’t,” he said.
City staff wrote in the report that they had asked for help from the provincial and federal governments to find places where they could house the unhoused.
“While the province initially proposed several sites for consideration, none were ultimately available for unhoused people to seek shelter,” the report notes.
Chauvin told advisers there was no reason why none were available.
When Mayor Savage told the a*sembly that the province had just recorded a surplus of $115.7 million, $621.9 million more than the deficit of $506.2 million estimated in March 2022 , a groan was heard in the rooms.
“Maybe the Red Cross intervention will embarra*s the province and force it to do its damn job,” the councilor said. Lisa Blackburn, who indicated that the municipality was grappling with a humanitarian crisis.
Advice. Sam Austin highlighted the province’s rapid response following the Tantallon wildfires, when 25 modular homes were purchased for victims.
In fashion now
Meanwhile, Austin said, the municipality has been asking for help to combat homelessness for three years.
“So I think we’ve come to a point where we have to conclude that the province is not going to come to our aid on this,” he said.
“We need to put a Band-Aid on this. »
Advice. Tim Outhit, who did not support recommendations to expand tent camps, said it would be “admitting defeat” because the province did not participate.
“We are around this table with big-hearted, kind and good people who care about the situation, but the province is not doing its job and we are giving it a way to not do its job,” Outhit said.
However, O’Toole stressed that current encampment situations were leading to “public health and safety concerns” and that action was needed.
In an interview with PKBNEWS earlier in the week, the province said it recognizes more needs to be done to combat homelessness in the province.
“We don’t want to see anyone sleeping on the streets, and we know the way forward is to look at supportive housing and affordable housing in the province,” said Executive Director Joy Knight. employment support and income a*sistance from the organization. Department of Community Services.
Over the past year, the province added 64 beds to the shelter network and opened 304 new supportive housing units.
“I have some confidence in the province about medium-term solutions,” Savage said.
“I know the province is considering many options. The problem is now. The problem is that we have people living in inhumane conditions in our city.
Among the motions pa*sed was asking the CAO to write to the province to request immediate plans to create affordable housing, as well as full service for the encampments.
More park spaces are needed
Even if the additional tent sites had been approved, city staff said it still would not meet the entire need and more park sites may need to be considered in the coming months.
“Unfortunately, growth in the number of people experiencing homelessness is expected to continue,” the report said, highlighting the lack of affordable housing, food insecurity and difficulties accessing physical and mental health care.
It is estimated that maintaining the large encampments, which require weekly trash and water delivery service, could cost more than $30,000 each per year.
Utility costs would add another $50,000 to $60,000.
General manager O’Toole said staffing required to maintain the sites would also be an issue.
“We can do as much as we can with our current staff (but) I’m not sure it will be enough,” she said.
“We will work with our existing enforcement staff and address any additional needs as part of next year’s budget process.”
The Parks and Recreation budget would also be affected, with the loss of revenue linked to the closure of certain parks and the increase in maintenance costs and toilet resources.
“Municipal spending in response to homelessness is increasing and will exceed this year’s budget,” the report said.
“Staff will continue to seek funding from other levels of government and clarify roles and responsibilities. »
Non-park spaces and small houses
Council was also asked to “consider other options” other than park space, including parking lots, rights-of-way, excess land and private land rentals.
The report also asked councilors to consider transitional or permanent housing.
“Tiny homes are a type of housing inventory that is lacking in Halifax’s housing stock,” the report states.
“These are cost-effective housing units that can provide a stable living environment for people experiencing homelessness… These units can be built at a lower cost than traditional housing.”
As for the costs of temporary host communities, the report says it would be “impossible at this time” to make such an estimate.
“The scope of the projects, as determined by possible future negotiations with the Province of Nova Scotia, will determine these costs. Staff will return to Regional Council at a later date with more information.
Councilors voted unanimously to request a report from staff exploring the feasibility of purchasing and installing prefabricated structures.