According to data from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, there were 316 people who were chronically homeless in the municipality at the end of August last year.
Chronic homelessness means a person has been without adequate housing for six months or more.
This week, that number is 469 – an increase of 153 people, or by nearly 50 per cent.
It’s a troubling increase, but one that’s not surprising to Jeff Karabanow, a professor of social work at Dalhousie University who has spent two decades researching the issue and working with unhoused populations.
“We’re seeing more people on the streets. We’re seeing more people suffering in this past year,” said Karabanow.
“We are experiencing a massive housing crisis that we’ve never, ever, experienced before.”
But those numbers don’t truly capture the extent of the issue, he said.
“We are missing those that don’t want to be counted, those that are couch surfing, those that are not connected to any organizational system,” said Karabanow.
“So the numbers are going to be much, much higher, of course.”
A ‘huge disaster’
It was one year ago, early in the morning on Aug. 18, 2021, when dozens of Halifax Regional Police officers descended on parks around the municipality to remove unhoused people staying in crisis shelters and tents because they had nowhere else to go.
Hundreds of people poured into downtown Halifax to protest the shelter removal, resulting in officers deploying pepper spray into crowds of people and more than two dozen arrests.
In the days that followed, the municipality insisted that everyone who was displaced were offered alternative housing options, but council later admitted that wasn’t actually the case.
Reflecting on the response one year later, Karabanow described the situation as a “huge disaster.”
“We saw the state and its mechanisms truly, truly, disrespect a population that had no other means to survive,” he said.
Following the evictions, some of the displaced people moved to Meagher Park, also known as People’s Park, in the city’s north end.
But earlier this summer, the city designated four other outdoor spaces where people could shelter – none of which were Meagher Park – and the park was vacated earlier this month so the city could clean it up.
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Karabanow said last year’s evictions demonstrated the importance of an empathetic, trauma-informed approach when working with unhoused people, and it was clear there were some lessons learned.
“Dates were much clearer this time around,” he said, referring to the clearing of Meagher Park.
“There was a lot more communication between police, between the city and those experiencing homelessness at the park, so we’ve learned something a year ago.”
However, dispersing them to the four designated outdoor sheltering spaces is still “problematic,” he said.
“Moving someone from one place to another … there’s no stability that can be provided to folks that are really, really suffering,” said Karabanow.
“So it’s not surprising that every intervention is going to be fraught.”
As more and more people struggle with homelessness in the region, Karabanow described it as a “macro-economic crisis” – it took a long time to get to this point, so it will take a long time to fix.
While some attribute the homelessness crisis to the pandemic, he said it’s only amplified issues that have already existed for decades.
“We have been arguing and advocating for over 20 years about the lack of affordable housing, the lack of social housing, the lack of housing outside the market economy,” he said.
Karabanow said the issue won’t get better until all levels of government make “deep, deep investments” – not just in housing, but in other issues that contribute to homelessness, like food insecurity, child welfare and health care.
“We’re coming out of one disaster, but we’re really experiencing a lack of investment and a lack of insight into all these systems over the past 20, 30 years, and we’re really seeing it emerge right now,” he said.
“And those who are going to suffer the most through it are those who really need those systems.”
‘One person on the street is one too many’
But Karabanow is hopeful that things could improve. While the encampment evictions one year ago were traumatic, they helped mobilize service providers, which in turn pushed governments to make some changes and think outside the box.
“We’re seeing more collaboration between different sectors, we’re seeing all levels of government taking this much more seriously, we are seeing more imaginative initiatives being set up,” he said.
While housing is a provincial responsibility – and Karabanow said they are working toward increasing affordable housing stock on that end – the city also took on implementing modular units.
Karabanow said governments need to think creatively to get more people housed as soon as possible before the situation gets worse. One option could be using the empty space that employers have been slow to refill during the pandemic, he said.
While the number of unhoused people is on the rise, Karabanow said there’s still time to address the issue before we begin seeing the same level of homelessness in other cities, like Toronto or Vancouver.
“Our numbers are still manageable that we could, as a community, really be able to mobilize quickly to make a huge dent in this population’s suffering,” said Karabanow.
“One person on the street is one too many, but the government really, really should be mobilizing right now to provide large-scale investments, so that we can eradicate the vast majority of homelessness pretty quickly.”