Boxes of books, board games, sports equipment and home décor sit on the ground by two temporary pop-up shelters in Fort Needham Memorial Park, dismantled by volunteers on Saturday afternoon.
The personal belongings serve as evidence that to their occupants, the insulted structures were more than crisis accommodations — they were homes.
“It feels incredibly heartbreaking,” said Campbell McClintock, external spokesperson for Halifax Mutual Aid, which erected the two shelters during the winter months.
“It’s tragic that the city and the province, rather than actively supporting these folks, have worked together to actively harm these people and displace them from a space that they’ve made into their home.”
The Halifax Regional Municipality did not respond to a request for comment on this story. On Friday, it tore down three of 14 temporary shelters set up by Halifax Mutual Aid, an anonymous advocacy group committed to “taking action against homelessness by building small crisis shelters,” according to its website.
The shelters, on their current locations, run against a municipal bylaw, but in a Friday statement, the city said its approach was to allow them to remain until “adequate housing has been identified and offered, or until the health and safety of the occupants or public are at risk.”
The city said it issued notice to all occupants of the temporary shelters on July 6 and worked to ensure temporary accommodations were in place. In a July 6 statement, city officials said “a deadline of July 13, 2021” was given for the removals, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be removed prior to that date.
Some occupants were caught off guard when removals began on July 9. Housing advocate Gayle Collicutt said neither the city nor the province did enough to ensure all residents received the message or offer of accommodations. She also said some of the shelters weren’t “vacated,” as the city has claimed.
At least one person was stranded outside overnight, she explained, having been kicked out of parking garages.
“They are unable to access Out of the Cold until they get a referral from the street navigator, who is not back until Monday,” she told Global News. “This is a policy implemented by Community Services and Housing Nova Scotia.”
The timing of the city’s shelter removals, Collicutt added, was particularly egregious given how difficult it is to access support when government offices are closed.
In a statement on Saturday, Department of Community Services spokesperson Carley Sampson did not address questions about the timing of the removals, but confirmed a street navigator would not be available until Monday.
“We suggest this gentleman reach out to the Salvation Army or Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre where there is a bed available,” she wrote. “He is invited to speak with the Street Navigator or a Housing Support Worker on Monday about a referral to the Out of the Cold shelter.”
Meanwhile, Halifax Mutual Aid says it’s regrouping to determine the best way to support folks in need of housing, in a place that’s convenient and safe for them. The group has a waitlist of more than 20 who want to move into its temporary shelters.
“This population is far greater than the 12 or so people (governments) believed to have occupied these shelters,” said McClintock.
“There’s so many people in need of them and desiring to move into them, and the city has removed that option entirely.”
Halifax Mutual Aid initially refused to tear down any of the shelters, despite the city’s request to do so.
McClintock said the decision was taken to voluntarily remove the Fort Needham Memorial Park shelters since the group was unsure it would be able to occupy them before city crews arrived, and it had confirmed the original occupants had other arrangements in place. It also made sense, he added, to save the materials.
“If there are shelters that are not able to be occupied on the very short timeline that the city is operating by, it’s possible that the group will decide to dismantle more shelters. The waitlist can be challenging to get in touch with everybody, so the best decision not to let the city have a leg up on this was to dismantle the shelters ourselves.”
According to the province, as of Tuesday, there were 352 people seeking housing, which is 138 fewer than on Dec. 8, 2020.