Over the last few weeks, residents near Victoria Park in Dartmouth have raised some concerns about a new emergency shelter down the street.
Since the Frank MacKay House opened late last month at the SonLife Community Church on Windmill Road, some have complained about homeless people sleeping on benches, camping in bushes and in one extreme case – using the park as a toilet.
These concerns have brought the shelter to the forefront of community conversation, but Dartmouth Shelter Society founder Warren Wesson says the Frank MacKay House is just one piece of a much larger puzzle.
“I know just from the data I’ve collected, and in the short time I’ve been open, we need a hundred of these beds,” he told Global News after finishing a shift at the 10-bed Frank MacKay House.
“A hundred, easily, that’s just what I’ve learned in three weeks and it could be much more.”
A recent report from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS) suggests there could be as few as seven homeless people living in Dartmouth, and that the number of “absolute” homeless individuals is much lower than what is likely perceived by the public.
The report’s co-author was not available for an interview on Friday, but Wesson says the lack of data on the scale of homelessness in Dartmouth has contributed to a problem of severe under-servicing.
“There are homeless encampments all throughout Dartmouth. There’s at least half a dozen within the urban core side of Dartmouth,” Wesson said.
“Establishing Frank MacKay House did not create a homeless problem in the north End of Dartmouth… but it did bring a lot of awareness to it. Maybe there’s a shiny side to that coin.”
A number of his clients are gainfully employed, he added, but can’t afford regular rent, down payments or damage deposits. A much larger conversation needs to be had on affordable housing in the community, he explained.
Sam Austin, councillor for the district, agreed that a lack of data on homeless in the area is an issue, but said the Halifax Regional Municipality does not have the jurisdiction required to build more affordable housing.
That responsibility falls under the provincial government.
“As a municipality, what we’re working on – Centre Plan – there’s going to be a section of all new development beyond a certain size where developers are going to have to pay into a housing fund,” said Austin. “The working plan is to then turn around and fund non-profits, such as maybe the Frank MacKay House.”
The HRM can also reduce planning barriers, he added, such as approving more basement units for residential homes, which could be rented for lower rates.
None of the residents living near the shelter reached by Global News agreed to an interview. Many were concerned about sewing division in their community, and while most were okay with the shelter in theory, they were worried about the behaviour of its clients.
Wesson empathized with their concerns and said he’d try his best to address them each individually. He encouraged anyone who observes inappropriate behaviour to call the police if necessary, and contact Frank MacKay House.
“An improperly run shelter could lead to really serious issues, you know, with individuals, senior citizens, children, families,” he said. “Shelters can attract a pretty dangerous element and it would be naive to suggest otherwise.”
Austin also said the residential concerns are legitimate, but emphasized that the shelter “has to go somewhere.”
“We can’t dump all these facilities in Burnside where there’s no community support, no services for them,” he explained.
The neighbours said they’d meet in the next few days to discuss their concerns, and consider reaching out to local politicians.