A group of 10 community organizations and members called for the Halifax Regional Municipality to stop removing temporary shelters from public property in a statement released Tuesday.
“It’s really essential that the city take action to support steps that people are taking for themselves to ensure their survival and now is not the time to remove those shelters,” said Mark Culligan, a community legal worker with Dalhousie Legal Aid Service.
The group said the city’s eviction actions are legally suspect and that the province isn’t offering permanent housing solutions.
Over the past six months, Halifax Mutual Aid has created small, insulated shelters for the homeless throughout HRM.
On July 6, vacate notices were issued to people who live in the shelters informing them of a July 13 deadline date for their removal.
Three shelters were removed on July 9 by the municipality because they said they were unoccupied. The volunteer coalition and housing advocates who regularly communicate with occupants dispute that claim, saying one person was at work for the day and returned to find an empty lot.
“I’m not going to force a deadline and say if people aren’t out by this point in time then they’re going to be forcibly removed, that’s not my intent. We want to treat people as human beings and provide them with options that make sense,” said Halifax Mayor Mike Savage.
Savage says the provincial Department of Community Services is taking the lead on what those alternative options are.
“If there isn’t something right now then they’re prepared to move people into hotels and not just for two weeks but for as long as it takes to get them into the kind of supportive housing that everybody deserves,” he said.
The community organizations behind the joint statement say short-term hotel stays put many people in extremely vulnerable situations that often jeopardize their safety.
“Our concern is that these hotels may not be adequate to the distinct and often complex needs of people who are experiencing homelessness. These are group care settings, they’re going to be under the microscope of hotel operators,” Culligan said.
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The advocacy group began erecting the tiny shelters in January in response to a shortage of affordable rental accommodation in the city.
The shelters, on their current locations, run against a municipal bylaw, but in a 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.
The group of organizations, which includes the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers and the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, said the city is trying to “give legal cover to its actions” by offering to provide shelter to residents with alternative accommodations.
In a statement, the municipality said the province has worked to ensure temporary accommodation options, which can lead to permanent housing, and were made available to all of the occupants of the temporary shelters as of last Tuesday, when the municipality issued notices.
To date, six individuals who had previously been occupying a temporary shelter have accepted a housing solution, according to the city on July 9.
But the group says these so-called alternative accommodations include short-term stays in hotel or motel rooms.
“Hotels are not homes. The hotel plan is a makeshift solution that is inadequate to the distinct and complex needs of people experiencing housing insecurity,” said the group.
A lawyer at the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, Sarah White, said that “Halifax’s plan to evict shelter residents may amount to violations of both the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms as well as of Canada’s international human rights obligations.”
This is why the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service is looking to connect with people who are directly affected by these evictions “to gather evidence about the adequacy of the alternative accommodations on offer.”
The group said the city has claimed that the shelters are a threat to public safety, a claim they believe is “flimsy deflection.”
“How on earth would it enhance public safety during a pandemic to force housing insecure persons to sleep rough or in a tent? Surely forcible eviction is an even greater risk to public safety,” the group stated.
“Whatever its public justifications, what is happening is that the city is reacting to those who view the shelters as eyesores and their residents as bad for business and property values.”