A university professor who has focused much of his career on working with unhoused people has “mixed feelings” about a Halifax council staff report recommending that some outside spaces be designated for sheltering.
The report, which is expected to come before council Tuesday, suggests 16 possible spaces, mostly parks, across the municipality where people experiencing homelessness would be able to shelter in tents.
Eleven of them would be for “overnight” stays – where people are only allowed to stay between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. – while the remaining five would allow people to stay longer-term.
Jeff Karabanow, a professor at Dalhousie University and a co-director of Dalhousie’s social work community clinic, said the report “misses the point” when it comes to using the resources available to create better, immediate housing options.
“I just don’t know why they wouldn’t mobilize all that energy and resources to something that’s more sustainable and dignified,” he said.
“I think it’s sad that we are considering an option of tenting in parks as an interim intervention for the lack of housing that exists in this city.”
The report was prepared after a six-week reassessment of the city’s approach to homelessness and encampments.
It also comes before council just more than a week after a 65-year-old man was allegedly assaulted by a man staying at a crisis shelter built by the group Halifax Mutual Aid in Dartmouth’s Starr Park.
Area councillor Sam Austin has blamed Halifax Mutual Aid for placing the shelter there in the first place, while the group alleges the man who was assaulted had previously acted in a threatening manner toward their volunteers and the shelter occupants.
Affordable housing ‘desperately’ needed
Karabanow said he doesn’t know much about the Starr Park situation, but said he’s “not surprised tensions are high” when people are living in public spaces while “suffering from all the elements of being homeless.”
“Any form of violence is unacceptable and it’s deeply troubling when somebody is injured, and somebody feels violated,” he said.
“The bottom line is that that should never exist, and I think we should really be trying to find ways to be so much more compassionate with one another, especially in these times.”
Karabanow said finger-pointing isn’t helping.
“The bigger story is really about getting people who are experiencing the disaster of homelessness … into much more safe and supportive spaces. I think (that) could create a much healthier environment for everybody,” he said.
“We desperately, desperately, need to be looking at opportunities to get folks housed. We need affordable housing.”
Karabanow said many people are “deeply compassionate” about the plight of homelessness, especially during COVID-19 when many of society’s inequities have been in the spotlight.
But there are still harmful myths and stereotypes around unhoused people, he said, which can often stem from a lack of understanding and empathy about their situations.
“If you don’t have a deep understanding and empathy for the population, then you will create, sometimes, some forms of stereotypes that make sense of things,” he said.
A “layer of fear” of the unknown can contribute to these perceptions as well, he said.
“People who are living unhoused, who are suffering on the streets, tend to look different. They are in survival mode, and I believe that for some populations, that can be unnerving,” he said.
“If you don’t take the time to get to know someone, we always are contained by some of the stereotyping and rhetoric that tries to shape understanding, which, many times, is far from the truth.”
Homelessness on the rise
According to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, as of April 27, there are at least 562 people in HRM currently experiencing homelessness.
Of those, 418 are chronically homeless, meaning they have been homeless for at least six months in the past year, or have experienced homelessness during at least 18 months over the past three years.
While those numbers likely don’t capture the full picture of homelessness in the municipality, figures from AHANS suggest the number of chronically unhoused people has risen by 13 per cent in the first three months of 2022.
Meanwhile, there are only about 200 shelter beds available in the city, according to the staff report. Even if the number of shelter beds was to double overnight, there still wouldn’t be enough spaces for everyone.
In the immediate short term, Karabanow said designating some parks to be used by unhoused people could be a “Band-Aid,” if it’s done in a trauma-informed, inclusive and dignified way.
But at this point, Karabanow noted, those terms have almost become “buzzwords” and he’s not sure if that will actually happen.
“The city has noted those dynamics and then has, I think, created particular interactions that actually were far from being inclusive, being caring, compassionate and trauma-informed,” he said.
The report also said if people are in a space not designated for sheltering and they refuse to leave, “the municipality may require the occupant to move through enforcement actions.”
Karabanow said there’s potential for “criminalization aspects” to arise from the regulations, and said limiting where unhoused people can stay may also have an isolating effect.
“It’s almost like you’re trying to create these spaces, where these are the only spaces that a particular population can be, and these are the rules that are associated with that space,” he said.
“We’re working with populations here that have deep, deep trauma dynamics … they need deep care and support, and to be creating particular dynamics that are going to kind of maintain a population in a certain arena, and isolate them from other arenas, there could be a lot of confusion.”
The professor said with Nova Scotia’s, and Halifax’s, relatively small size and population, there are other ideas that could be implemented in a timely manner – such as looking at underutilized or empty buildings and quickly converting them into housing.
“I think that’s kind of the piece that we need to be exploring,” he said.
This Should Be Housing
The idea of taking underutilized buildings and converting them into housing isn’t a new one. In fact, an interactive mapping project aims to highlight where those buildings are and who owns them.
Lorax Horne, a freelance journalist and creator of This Should Be Housing, said the project to map out vacant buildings was made in collaboration with Halifax Mutual Aid.
“It’s a tool for the imagination, as well as sort of a record of properties like the Bloomfield Centre, or St. Pat’s Alexandra’s, where there have been community proposals for how to either use them as housing or as community centres, that city council hasn’t really done anything with,” they said.
“They just sort of listen to developers more than they listen to people about what should happen with different parts of the city, so the map is meant to give people a place where they could either keep a record of places that used to be housing, or should be housing, or underused plots of land.”
The map is a community project and allows users to pin vacant buildings in their area that are owned by the city, the province, the federal government, or privately. There are about 300 currently, Horne said.
Many of the privately-owned buildings on the map have been vacant for years – buildings that could have sheltered some of the hundreds of people who are unhoused.
“Developers speculate with property, and they hold on to lots until they can reach a price point that they want to do something with, and until that point, it can just sit there waiting,” said Horne.
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While Horne didn’t witness the alleged assault in Starr Park, they said they saw the 65-year-old man be aggressive toward the members of Halifax Mutual Aid who were building the shelter last weekend, a couple of days before the alleged assault.
Horne said the city is not treating homelessness with the urgency it needs, noting it promised modular units for unhoused people “before the snow flies” back in the fall. Instead, it would take until January to get the units in Dartmouth up and running, and the units in Halifax have yet to be finished.
“That teaches folks how much priority that they give to this problem,” they said.
A ‘complicated’ issue
The city has long maintained that housing is a provincial responsibility, but a member of the legislature said the province has also failed to address the housing crisis.
“I think that the housing crisis has not been far from my mind for the last several years, and especially coming out of a legislative session where we really expected to see meaningful action based on what the government had been telling us, and they did not,” said Claudia Chender, the NDP MLA for Dartmouth South.
“I wasn’t surprised that the tensions continue to be high, and the number of people sleeping rough continues to grow.”
She said the party recently introduced legislation calling housing a human right, but it was voted down by the Progressive Conservative government.
There has been some investment in housing supply, she said, but very little at the “bottom end.”
“We haven’t built any public housing in this city in decades,” Chender said. “So whether or not that happens again, it’s incumbent upon the province to look at the fact that our affordable housing supply is non-existent. And I’m talking about real affordable housing, so, 30 per cent of someone’s income.”
She said the first step should be to create emergency infrastructure to get people off the street, and then focus on transitional and permanent housing where they can stay.
Chender, whose constituency includes the Starr Park area, said the best people to address the housing crisis are the regional housing authorities, but “those people are falling down.”
“They’re not being funded properly to do the work they need to do, and so therefore people step into the gaps, I think, with very good intentions,” she said.
“But without a concerted effort, and without the resources, and the trust, and the ability to create stable housing, any solution is going to be imperfect.”
The province should be looking at “innovative options,” she said, such as right of first refusal, which would allow the province to get first dibs on properties that go up for sale. The province could then turn it into affordable housing.
Chender said there are currently five multi-residential buildings up for sale in her district that the province could look at buying.
“The likelihood of those being long-term, affordable rentals after they’re sold for a million dollars, or whatever they’re going to be sold for in this market, is very slim,” she said.
“There are lots of ways that they could preserve housing stock, they could expand housing stock … There are lots of opportunities, and it’s not an issue of if it’s possible, it’s an issue of political will.
“I’m not saying it’s not complicated. It’s obviously very complex and it’s very challenging, but we just need more action and we need to see it faster.”
In a statement, Christina Deveau, the spokesperson for the provincial Department of Community Services, said the province is working closely with HRM “on homelessness and encampment issues.”
She said in its latest budget, the province earmarked nearly $17 million for “new and continued supportive housing initiatives,” which include providing more funding to service providers and shelters and hiring 10 new housing support workers across the province.
The province has also previously announced $10 million for wraparound supports, shelters and culturally relevant housing.
“Homelessness and lack of affordable housing is a problem too significant and too complex for one level of government, one private sector organization or one non-profit group to fix on its own,” said Deveau.
Meanwhile, Halifax city council is expected to vote on whether or not to accept the recommendations in the staff report on Tuesday.