A large crowd of people gathered outside the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre’s homeless shelter in Halifax Friday afternoon in a rally to save the facility, which is set to close at the end of the month.
Earlier this week, the executive director of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, Pamela Glode-Desrochers, said the decision to shutter the space at 2029 North Park St. was because it’s not properly serving the city’s Indigenous community.
The Friendship Centre is now focusing on the Diamond Bailey House, an Indigenous supportive housing initiative in Halifax, which is set to open next summer.
While the current shelter’s goal was to prioritize Indigenous people, Glode-Desrochers said the majority of the shelter’s residents are non-Indigenous and the centre has failed to implement the appropriate cultural resources, such as full-time elders on staff. The lease on the building also ends at the end of the month.
However, some of the shelter’s employees say the closure is a response to a unionization drive that was recently started.
During Friday’s rally, Brent Cosgrove, a shelter case manager, said staff wanted to unionize to better serve the shelter’s residents.
“We owe it to our Indigenous residents, in particular, to advocate for them and to push for those supports and resources for them as well,” he told the crowd.
“It is heartbreaking to think that anybody would choose to close this emergency shelter instead of working collaboratively with us and meeting with us to discuss our needs as frontline staff,” Cosgrove continued.
“But the abrupt decision to completely shut down at the worst possible time of year, with such little notice, at the exact moment we came together to unionize, leaves us little other explanation.”
Cogrove added that staff have filed an unfair labour practice complaint to the Nova Scotia Labour Board.
Fellow shelter case manager Catherine Hubbard said staff were never looking to “pick a fight” with their employer.
“We are still open to (having) a dialogue and (working) together to come to a good place and create positive solutions for our guests,” she said. “Ultimately, the staff believe in the goals and visions created by the Friendship Centre and we want to see it succeed and we want to see it expand.”
She said Halifax needs more shelter spaces and services for homeless folks, especially those who are Indigenous. More than 450 are currently homeless in the Halifax area, of whom 96 are Indigenous, according to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia.
Hubbard said staff have been asking for months for more support to better serve their clients.
“There is no reason — bottom line — no reason that these changes cannot be done alongside us, working to maintain a safe shelter bed for 40 people,” she said.
“We are ultimately putting way more stress on an overburdened system that is failing so many people. At the end of the day, this brick building is a home for 40 people. At the end of the day, Halifax cannot afford to lose one more shelter bed. We cannot afford one less way to find a solution before it’s too late.”
Province to get hotel rooms
In a release issued just as the rally began, Karla MacFarlane, the minister of Community Services and L’nu Affairs, said she was “deeply saddened” by the decision to close the shelter.
“The centre remains a valuable partner,” the statement said. “We are always focused on the safety and well-being of homeless individuals staying in shelters, and we recognize culturally safe places play a critical role in reducing harm.”
MacFarlane said the Department of Community Services will work with the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre to transfer people to a hotel “where they will receive supports to help them move into the community once ready.”
It said $850,000 that was committed for the emergency shelter will be directed toward hotel costs. The statement also noted that the province recently announced $1.6 million for the Friendship Centre to operate the future Diamond Bailey House, and another $76,000 will be provided in the first year for start-up costs.
“Our first concern is always the well-being of the clients we serve,” it said. “The Department of Community Services will continue to move quickly with a variety of interventions and supports to ensure those who need help receive it.”
Shelter did ‘opposite’ of its intended purpose: MNFC
According to a letter from the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre Society, signed by Glode-Desrochers, as well as board of directors president Anthony Thomas and vice-president Roger Lewis, they are “working on other projects that support our mandate of providing for the needs of the urban Indigenous community.”
“We will be working with Elders, staff and Indigenous community members with lived experience to ensure projects are grounded in Indigenous ways and knowledge and we will determine what that looks like,” it said. “We will ensure that culturally versed and trained staff have the tools and resources to ensure we can meet the true needs of our community.”
The letter said the Indigenous organization has successfully worked with governments and other organizations, “however, we have never experienced institutionalized racism inside our own walls like we have this week.”
“We, unfortunately, have seen these colonized approaches used against us and in some cases non-Indigenous people posing as allies to opportunistically serve their own agendas,” it said.
“Our right to self-determination is underscored by the events of this week and while upsetting, we are reaffirming our mandate and role as an organization that supports the urban Indigenous community.”
The letter went on to say that during COVID-19, some people became “desperate” and claimed to be Indigenous when they were not, which affected their ability to support Indigenous homeless people.
“The shelter was supposed to lift our people up. In fact, it did the opposite. Our community faced racism and felt unsafe in what was supposed to be a place for them,” it said.
“While the province has just announced funding for the shelter it is with a very heavy heart that the Friendship Centre will not be moving forward with the shelter.”