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N.S. government ‘very concerned’ about tent fires at two Halifax homeless encampments

Click to play video: 'Concerns for safety after 2 fires at Halifax tent encampments over weekend'
Concerns for safety after 2 fires at Halifax tent encampments over weekend
WATCH: Concerns for the safety of residents at homeless encampments across Halifax are rising. This comes after fire crews responded to two tent fires over the weekend. Vanessa Wright reports. – Dec 11, 2023

The Nova Scotia government says it’s very concerned about safety at Halifax’s homeless encampments after tents caught fire at two sites over the weekend.

In a statement on Monday, the Department of Community Services said it is aware of the two tent fires, one of which occurred in downtown Halifax Saturday and one in Dartmouth Sunday. The department “is very concerned about the situation happening in encampments that are leading to fires, and we don’t want to see anyone sleeping rough.”

Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services responded to both weekend tent fires, and deputy fire chief David Meldrum said Monday there were no injuries reported. A tent caught fire Sunday behind Wyse Road in Dartmouth, Meldrum said, adding that MacDonald Bridge security staff doused the flames with a portable extinguisher before firefighters arrived.

The occupant of the tent told firefighters they had been running a small propane heater inside the tent and had fallen asleep. Their tent was located behind a Dartmouth hotel that had been turned into a homeless shelter through a lease with the Nova Scotia government that runs until 2024.

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A volunteer who responded to the blaze Saturday at downtown Halifax’s Grand Parade said the tent’s three residents narrowly escaped the flames, adding that he put out the fire before it reached a nearby propane tank.

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Meldrum said there was insufficient evidence to determine the origin of that fire and that the tent’s residents were not available to be interviewed. Firefighters found a propane cylinder in the tent, which was removed, and a butane stove and small heater were discovered nearby, Meldrum said.

Grand Parade is one of 11 sites designated as outdoor encampments by the Halifax Regional Municipality. These sites are monitored by municipal staff and its residents have access to portable bathrooms and garbage collection.

More than 30 homeless encampment sites have been recorded across the Halifax area. As of last week, 1,068 people in the region have self-identified to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia as being actively homeless.

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There are more than 15 shelters and tents on the Grand Parade; the municipality has authorized eight tents at that site. Halifax officials were not available for comment on Monday.

The Department of Community Services deferred questions about the encampment fires to the municipality, and mentioned the province’s efforts to support people sleeping rough, including the recent addition of 50 shelter beds in the Dartmouth area.

However, the department could not provide a timeline for the erection of 200 emergency shelter units it purchased for people experiencing homelessness. In October, Nova Scotia said it would buy 200 shelters from American company Pallet that would be set up in “villages” with access to electricity, washrooms, laundry and on-site support. Half of these shelters are slated to be installed in the Halifax area.

“This is complex work that requires multiple partners to implement, including other government departments, utilities and service providers,” the department said.

Following a Dec. 7 cabinet meeting, Community Services Minister Trevor Boudreau said the government had hoped to have the Pallet shelters “up by mid-December; obviously we are not meeting that timeline.”

“There are challenges with getting the sites selected … This is something that has taken longer than we anticipated,” he said.

Across Nova Scotia, there are 443 shelter beds in 16 locations run by community organizations that receive provincial funding. Two of these shelters only operate during winter.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2023.

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