This is the first part of a three-day web series on homelessness in Nova Scotia.
During the three and a half years he’s spent as a street navigator, Eric Jonsson has noticed a growing crisis on the streets of Halifax.
“It just seems like every year, there’s more people outside than last year,” he said.
Jonsson’s job involves travelling around the city’s downtown core, seeking out people struggling with homelessness and helping them in any way he can.
But what they need most of all is housing, said Jonsson, which has become increasingly difficult to come by.
“We can go and talk to people who are living in tents and give them a sleeping bag, but really, you can’t help them because most of the time they want a place to live,” he said.
“It’s hard. It’s really hard to find a place to live.”
Jonsson has his work cut out for him. He’s one of just two street navigators in the whole municipality, with the second working in the Dartmouth area. There are an estimated 400 people sleeping rough in Halifax Regional Municipality,
Two street navigators “would be enough,” said Jonsson, if they actually had solutions for the people they’re helping.
“Most of the time, we go around and try to keep our eye on where people are at, and how they’re doing. But at the end of the day, most people are like, ‘Can you help me find a place to live?’” he said.
“‘Well,'” he will reply, “‘I filled some applications for you, but … there’s a hundred other people who are in the exact same situation and there’s just no apartments right now.’”
Homelessness takes a great toll on those who are experiencing it, especially as the weather grows colder and the nights grow longer.
Physically, there’s the risk of frostbite, hypothermia and pneumonia. Jonsson said some have learned to survive by not sleeping at night and instead walking around to keep warm.
There’s a mental impact as well.
“You’re always on edge, you’re tired, you probably don’t sleep well,” he said.
“Living on the street is just hard on your body, and some people have done it for years and years and they know how to survive. But if you’re new and don’t know how to keep warm, then you get so cold … I don’t wish that on anybody.”
For Jonsson, it’s difficult to watch people struggling and being unable to give them what they need most. He said people who work in the field of social services and homelessness can struggle with burnout.
“I always, maybe perhaps too cavalierly, say, ‘Oh, it’s hard to watch it, but it’s even harder to live it,’” he said. “But, yeah, it does take a toll on you.”
An ‘explosion’ on the streets
How did Nova Scotia get to the point where there are hundreds of people at night with no place to go?
The answer to that question is multi-faceted, says Jeff Karabanow, and the issue has been decades in the making.
Karabanow, a professor of social work at Dalhousie University, said advocates have been arguing for decades for municipal and provincial governments to create more affordable housing.
Now, people are paying the price for the “inactivity and inaction” around affordable housing.
“We’ve been very, very concerned for a long time that there is going to be an explosion on the streets if we couldn’t wrap our heads around some form of rapid-styled affordability housing that has supports embedded in it, that has to be taken by the province as the lead,” he said.
Other cities in Canada had been dealing with homelessness crises for decades, he said, and advocates have been raising the alarm in Nova Scotia for years.
“I’m not surprised that we got to this place,” he said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic helped push things over the edge.
“On top, we have a pandemic that has, I think, really, really amplified key dynamics around poverty, around justice, around inclusion,” he said. “(The housing crisis) has ballooned in tandem with this kind of disaster of the pandemic.”
Add that to the stagnation of wages, the skyrocketing cost of living, and housing increasingly being seen as an investment opportunity rather than a social good, and we’ve created a “perfect storm” for the crisis we’re seeing today, he said — a crisis that shouldn’t exist in a rich country like Canada.
Karabanow said he was deeply impacted after working with impoverished communities in southeast Asia and Guatemala years ago and coming back to North America, where similar issues existed.
“We live in such a rich and fairly safe environment … especially Nova Scotia, where the numbers aren’t huge yet, we can really be providing everybody who needs, wants, some form of safe, stable housing. We could be providing that pretty easily,” he said.
“I think it’s become, for me, just a sense of inequity and injustice.”
Asking for help
For people who may be newly homeless or on the brink of homelessness, Karabanow said there are a number of resources attempting to support people in those situations.
While the shelter system is under a lot of strain, Karabanow said the province’s shelter workers are “phenomenal” and could help people with navigating the system.
He also pointed to the Dalhousie School of Social Work Community Clinic, which helps people who are unhoused or precariously housed.
Jonsson, the street navigator, said anyone who is in danger of losing their home should first try to do everything they can to stay there.
“It’s much harder to find a new apartment than to stay at your current one,” he said. “Once you move out, it’s going to be so much harder to find a new spot.”
If they are unable to avoid eviction, he said people shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to resources in their area, a friend or family member, or even an MLA or government official.
“Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help because the problem is bigger than any one person right now,” he said.
“So many people are struggling right now. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”