HRM councillor calls for collaboration on temporary pop-up shelters

Click to play video 'Third structure intended to shelter a homeless person popped up in Halifax' Third structure intended to shelter a homeless person popped up in Halifax
WATCH: Another temporary structure has popped up in Halifax, this time in by the old library. It’s the third such structure to be installed in just over a week. The structures are considered a Band-Aid solution but they are bringing attention to the housing crisis. Alicia Draus has more – Jan 27, 2021

A third temporary structure to provide shelter for the homeless has now popped up in HRM, this time right next to the old Central Library on Spring Garden road.

The temporary shelters are part of an initiative by an anonymous volunteer group called Mutual Aid Halifax – but they aren’t working with the Municipality and haven’t sought permission to place the structures on municipal property.

“The one in front of the library is problematic because we’ve become more and more sensitive to the fact that 20,000 people are buried there,” said councillor for the area Waye Mason.

READ MORE: Temporary shelters pop up in Dartmouth to protect homeless from the elements

The library on Spring Garden Road has sat derelict since it closed in August 2014 as the municipality transitioned to the new Halifax Central Library across the street, and any future development has been stalled in part because it’s the site of a massive burial ground.

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Many of the estimated 20,000 remains buried under the grounds of the old library and nearby streets were residents of the city’s Poor House or prison inmates. All were buried in shallow, unmarked graves between 1758 and 1869.

Despite concerns over the location of the latest pop up shelter, Mason says he doesn’t oppose the overall idea of the project.

“I think it’s a great initiative, and I’m really glad they’re doing it even though it’s a crappy solution,” he said.

“We should be embarrassed as a province that that’s what’s happening.”

Click to play video 'Out of the Cold shelter opening at new location with increased capacity' Out of the Cold shelter opening at new location with increased capacity
Out of the Cold shelter opening at new location with increased capacity – Dec 8, 2020

Mason says it’s frustrating that it’s come to this, but says the Municipality’s hands are largely tied, as housing is a provincial issue.

“The singularly most frustrating thing for all councillors and I think city staff as well is housing is provincial, and people should be tweeting Minister Porter and Stephen McNeil and all the leadership candidates and asking them why they haven’t done more,” said Mason.

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“We we need is the province to use some of the emergency money that’s come from the feds and rent some of the hotels that are empty and house these people properly.”

During the height of the pandemic in the first phase, the province was doing just that, providing hotel rooms for those who are homeless but that program ended over the summer.

READ MORE: In Halifax, housing advocates fear shortages of shelter adding to the ‘new poor’

Since then though, surveys have shown that homelessness in the province is on the rise. In previous years, single-day counts of the homeless population were around 200 people, but in 2020 when the count was completed on Oct. 9, the homeless population was 493.

“We have failed in our response as a society to think of the types of housing that we need to be able to support folks along the way,” said Alec Stratford, chair of the Nova Scotia Coalition for Community Well-Being.

“We stopped spending on housing publicly. You can look back, 1993 Brian Mulroney’s federal budget was the last time we ere publicly spending on housing.”

Click to play video 'Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre executive director talks affordable housing' Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre executive director talks affordable housing
Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre executive director talks affordable housing – Dec 10, 2020

Stratford acknowledges that the Trudeau government has put some money into this, most recently announcing 1 billion dollars this fall for up to 3,000 affordable housing units across the country, which included 8.7 million for Halifax. A good start, but Stratford says it’s not enough to make up for decades of lack of spending.

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“Before 1993 the Federal Government and partners along the ground with provinces, with coops with municipalities, was building 20,000 units a year, we stopped that,” said Stratford.

“We handed it over to the free market to deal with housing and they did what the free market does which is serve the developers.”

Stratford says this has lead us to the situation we’re in now, with rising rents and house prices, a 1 percent vacancy rate and a desperate need for more affordable housing units.

“Ultimately what we need to see is all orders of government working together to bring more public housing into the market.”

READ MORE: Halifax receives $8.7M for rapid housing

When asked about the housing crisis on Monday, Minister Chuck Porter declined an interview, but the department of Housing released a statement saying that the province has invested 1.7 million for 40 new shelter beds and is also investing $20 million dollars over five years as part of the Integrated Action Plan to Address Homelessness.

“That’s the kind of media line the government is going to through out,” said Waye Mason.

“None of that matters if people are not housed and it’s winter. Success is only measured by the province investing enough money to get all the homeless people under shelter where there’s heat and water and toilets, until they do that they’ve failed.”

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As for the pop-up shelters under municipal legislation, there is no ability to permit installation of housing structures, including temporary shelters, on parks, streets and other municipal infrastructure, however the Municipality has also decided it will not force the eviction of residents from homeless encampments until adequate housing is identified.

Mason says he encourages those behind the structures to work with their regional councillors before erecting more structures, so they can work together on finding safe and proper locations for these structures, and come up with a solution that works for everyone.

“We don’t want to institutionalize sheds in all the parks as something that exists forever, because as I said it’s not a solution, the province needs to do better,” said Mason, who added that discussion also needs to happen on how to monitor the structures and take down or move any that aren’t actively being used.