Unhoused man living in woods says crisis shelters needed throughout HRM

Click to play video: 'Housing becoming growing issue in rural parts of HRM'
Housing becoming growing issue in rural parts of HRM
WATCH: The rising cost of rent and unemployment rates in the Halifax are are making housing harder to find. And some say this is a growing issue in rural parts of the municipality. Alexa MacLean reports. – Jul 8, 2021

An unhoused man living in the woods surrounding Sackville says emergency crisis shelters are needed far beyond the urban cores of Halifax and Dartmouth.

“You can’t even get an apartment, everything included, for under $1,000. It’s impossible. You’re looking at $1,400 everything included and that’s just a single bedroom,” Jamie Harrison says.

Harrison says he was hopeful the wooden, watertight and insulated structures built by a volunteer coalition would be erected in communities outside the city centre.

He says the need for affordable housing continues to surge outside urban areas, pushing people into desperate situations.

“They’ll find an empty apartment building, or a corridor, or a hallway. I’ve even seen people sleep in bathrooms and close the door,” Harrison says.

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Jamie Harrison is an unhoused man surviving in the woods outside of the peninsula. Alexa MacLean/ Global Halifax

The city has issued vacate notices to crisis shelter occupants to leave their wooden structures by July 13 for violating a municipal bylaw by being placed in park areas.

The shelters were built by a coalition of citizens who feel the provincial and municipal governments haven’t taken effective action to address ongoing concerns around a lack of affordable housing stock.

They’ve been standing for six months and organizers say they’ve had a waiting list of people to occupy them.

“From the outset, the approach has been to allow occupants of homeless encampments to remain until adequate housing has been identified and offered, or until the health and safety of the occupants or public are at risk,” says a statement from the City of Halifax.

It’s not clear what housing options the occupants are being offered in lieu of being ordered to leave.

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Harrison says he and many others who aren’t able to find affordable housing don’t feel safe in the traditional shelter bed system that’s continually over capacity.

“How are you supposed to fall asleep knowing that someone would slit your throat to take what you got?”

Harrison adds that people without safe housing operate in full-time “survival” mode.

He’s become a master of it, he says. This is his second time living in the woods because he can’t find an affordable apartment, let alone steady employment as a labourer, he says.

The unemployment rate in the Halifax area is currently 13.1 per cent, according to employment data from Statistics Canada.

According to a national rental market report for 2020, the average rent in Halifax increased by 4.1 per cent in 2020 to $1,170 — higher than the city of Edmonton, which has a population exceeding 1 million.

More support needed

Mike Poworoznyk, director of the Sackville Area Warming Centre, says the number of people in need of support services for housing, food and health continues to grow.

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“Last year we served over 30, this year we’re over 40,” Poworoznyk says.

Poworoznyk says despite the increasing need for the types of services that the volunteer-run and donation-financed centre offers, there are no emergency shelter options for people living in the Sackville area communities.

“If there’s a shelter opportunity it’s on the peninsula but the policy of most places, they won’t hold the space. And, so it takes half an hour minimum even if we drove somebody downtown,” he says.

Poworoznyk calls the crisis shelters a “disruptive intervention” that was a long time coming and that provided occupants with an invaluable sense of security.

“(The occupants) started to experience what it means to have independence, and home, and motivation now to have their own space. And, taking that away from them sets them back.”

Poworoznyk says some of the occupants may need help in connecting with more permanent housing options and striking a “balance” is an ongoing issue that all levels of government need to urgently address in collaboration with caring, community partners.

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