Halifax councillors have unanimously approved a plan to designate four municipal parks as areas where people experiencing homelessness can tent.
During Tuesday’s regional council meeting, all 16 councillors voted in favour of the staff report, which would allow “30+ people to sleep rough in the community.”
The designated areas will be Green Road Park and the Geary Street green space in Dartmouth, as well as the Barrington Street green space and Lower Flinn Park in Halifax.
Coun. Sam Austin, whose district includes the two Dartmouth locations, told council he planned on voting for the plan because there was little choice.
“We are going to have people sheltering in our public spaces and so our choice is, do we allow sheltering in our public spaces with no planning, no support — the way it’s been happening for the last several years as this crisis has worsened?,” he said.
“Or do we actually designate some locations, provide some services and try to put some structure around it to minimize the impacts on both the folks that are living there, but also the folks who live nearby?”
The staff report from Parks & Recreation said the Halifax Regional Municipality is “in a housing and homelessness crisis.”
Max Chauvin, the special projects manager with Parks & Recreation, told councillors the number of people who had signed up with the municipality in search of housing had gone up 12.6 per cent between April 19 and May 31.
Marginalized communities, including people with Indigenous backgrounds and former youth in care, are overrepresented in the numbers.
The sanctioned tent sites, staff said, should be sufficient for the number of people who are currently residing in parks.
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“This will hopefully provide space (for) folks who are sleeping in parks, with some of the other housing coming online,” Chauvin said.
The staff report pointed out “additional housing supports” are being brought in over the next year, which would provide 292 new units.
Chauvin said the current plan looked at municipal park spaces because rezoning wasn’t necessary. However, if the need arose, he said provincial or federal locations may be suitable — or “spaces beyond parks.”
As for when the sites would be ready, he said it was hard to say.
“It is difficult to put specific timelines because it is fluid working with people,” he said.
The next steps, he said, would be posting signs at the parks, getting maps made, arranging bathrooms and potable water, as well as training compliance and enforcement officers.
The staff report had recommended creating a dedicated park patrol, which would “allow the municipality to recruit and train with a view to having compliance officers that are heavily focused on a restorative approach.”
Several councillors expressed concern about compliance, and the officers’ workload.
Staff had recommended that the approach should begin with compliance officers speaking to anyone breaking the rules, and connecting people with a Street Navigator or outreach worker. As a final resort, the report stated that “should the non-compliant behaviour persist, HRP (Halifax Regional Police) may be engaged.”
HRP Chief Dan Kinsella told councillors the police department plan to work closely with Parks and Recreation. He said currently, police have been called to noise complaints, assaults and some fires at encampments.
He told council he expects those types of calls will continue, and that officers are prepared to assist.
“We will go down and assist. It won’t be automatically they will be removed. There will have to be some investigation,” he said.
“The last thing we want to do — the very last thing we want to do — is have to physically remove anyone from their site.”
Police response to the municipality’s homelessness population has been highly criticized, from the eviction of people from homeless encampments to the dismantling of crisis shelters.
Kinsella said officers will be focused on having “discussions” and “alternatives.”
“I’m hoping that we can find an alternative that can be negotiated, keeping in mind everyone’s needs at the table,” he added.