‘Band-aid’ solution of tent encampments on Halifax Common rejected by council

Click to play video: 'Council rejects bid for tent encampments on Halifax Common'
Council rejects bid for tent encampments on Halifax Common
WATCH: The city of Halifax has accepted a new strategy to combat homelessness during a meeting Tuesday evening. The strategy will focus on ways to move some existing encampments into larger areas. But as Zack Power explains, it doesn’t include moving tents to the Halifax Common. – Sep 13, 2023

Halifax councillors have rejected a recommendation to turn parts of the Halifax Common into designated encampments for homeless people, in an evening of tense and emotional discussion over the issue.

Councillors did pass other motions that include leasing private property, using municipal surplus lands and looking to campgrounds and outdoor facilities for sheltering.

Max Chauvin, the municipality’s director of housing and homelessness, along with CAO Cathie O’Toole, presented the homelessness strategy update to regional council Tuesday.

Both O’Toole and Chauvin prefaced their presentation by calling the options “Band-Aid solutions” in the midst of a growing crisis.

According to a survey in 2018, there were 18 people unsheltered in the community. Data from July of this year in the Sleeping Rough Survey found 178 people unsheltered, and that number is believed to have grown.

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Click to play video: 'Mayor Mike Savage talks Homelessness'
Mayor Mike Savage talks Homelessness

In addition, the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia’s By Name indicates as of Aug. 29, there are 1,012 people experiencing homelessness in HRM.

“A colleague recently noted that the list is growing essentially 10 people a week,” Chauvin told councillors.

“With increases in homelessness, the need for humanitarian aid grows and the level of suffering we see in parks and on the street is staggering.”

The report made five recommendations, which included leasing private property for people to shelter in, allowing homeless encampments in Halifax Common, and looking into establishing more encampments or temporary housing on “all types of municipality-owned properties” such as parking lots.

“This is not a good short term solution, but there are no good options for this crisis that we face right now,” said Coun. Waye Mason following the presentation.

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“Allowing tent encampments is not the cause of homelessness. It’s a symptom of the broken system.”

Click to play video: 'Population of unhoused in Halifax area growing'
Population of unhoused in Halifax area growing

Councillors vote against Halifax Common encampment

The use of designated encampment locations is something Halifax turned to last summer. In 2022, the municipality established five designated locations, which were supposed to provide space for 44 tents. According to the municipality, a count on Aug. 14 found 90 people living in them.

“In addition to the designated locations, during the past year, 62 additional encampment sites have been set up by people experiencing homelessness. When drafting this report, approximately 30 of these non-designated locations are active,” the report noted.

The non-designated locations include about 40 tents at Victoria Park, about 17 tents in Grand Parade outside City Hall, and smaller, isolated park spaces with one or two tents.

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“We have more dramatic increases of people sleeping rough than we expected,” said Chauvin.

“It will be at least double next year, but it could possibly be more.”

The report suggested creating a new designated encampment at North Park and Cogswell streets in the Halifax Common, which would offer 20 spaces. The two crusher dust ball diamonds on the north side of the Common would then be converted to a larger homeless encampment at the end of the season on Oct. 31.

“This site will regularly be monitored to ensure it doesn’t expand into other areas of the Halifax Commons,” the report said.

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Allowing tents there would have required an exception to a criteria set in June 2022 that prohibits the use of active sports field for encampments.

But councillors expressed concerns about allowing tents on the Commons, and ultimately voted 10-4 against endorsing the exception.

“I don’t support the Commons solution but I sure as heck understand why it’s been proposed and we need to find some other solutions,” said Mayor Mike Savage.

“It’s not a matter of if we want them in tents, they are in tents because they have no place to go. The question is what do we do?”

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Others were concerned about the capacity issues facing the other designated encampments, and whether it would happen on the Commons.

“I’m not sure we can control this,” said Coun. Shawn Cleary, in regards to tents spreading from the designated spot.

He went on to say that with extreme weather, especially in light of Hurricane Lee entering the Atlantic Canada this weekend, the priority should be on creating indoor shelters.

“Those folks are going to have to go indoors Saturday, Sunday, where are they going to go?” he said.

“We are overwhelmed by this problem, and as the level of government with the least amount of resources, it’s stunning.”

‘We are left to Band-Aid this problem’

Other councillors echoed that concern — and expressed anger towards the provincial government.

Coun. Mason, who represents Halifax South Downtown, said the province has not built sufficient housing since taking over the role in the 1990s.

“The government seems to think the problem will solve itself. It will not,” he said.

Municipal staff wrote in the report they had requested assistance from the provincial and federal governments for locations where they could shelter unhoused people.

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“While the Province initially offered multiple sites for consideration, in the end, none were available to allow unhoused persons to seek shelter on them,” the report noted.

Chauvin told councillors there was no reason given why none were available.

When Mayor Savage told the meeting that the province had just recorded a $115.7-million surplus, which is $621.9 million higher than the $506.2-million deficit estimated in March 2022, there was an audible groan in the chambers.

“Maybe having the Red Cross come in will embarrass the province into doing their bloody job,” said Coun. Lisa Blackburn, who indicated the municipality had a humanitarian crisis on its hands.

Click to play video: 'Government leaders, officials call on N.S. to do more about rising number of tents'
Government leaders, officials call on N.S. to do more about rising number of tents

Coun. Sam Austin pointed to the quick response by the province in the aftermath of the wildfires in Tantallon, when 25 modular homes were purchased for victims.

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Meanwhile, Austin said, the municipality has been pleading for help to deal with homelessness for three years.

“So I think we’re at a point we have to conclude the province is not going to come to our rescue on this,” he said.

“We are left to Band-Aid this problem.”

Coun. Tim Outhit, who did not support the recommendations to expand tent encampments, said it would amount to “admitting defeat” because the province didn’t pitch in.

“We are big-hearted, kind, good people around this table who care, but the province is not doing their job and we are giving them a way to keep from doing their job,” said Outhit.

However, O’Toole pointed out that the current encampment situations were leading to “public health and public safety concerns” and that action was needed.

In an interview earlier in the week with Global News, the province said it was aware more needed to be done to address homelessness in the province.

“We don’t want to see anybody sleeping rough, and we know that the way to move forward is to look at supportive housing with affordable housing in the province,” said Joy Knight, executive director for employment support and income assistance, with the Department of Community Services.

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Over the past year, the province has added 64 beds to the shelter system and opened 304 new supportive housing units.

“I have some confidence in the province on the midterm solutions,” said Savage.

“I know that there’s many options that the province are looking at. The problem is right now. The problem is we have people who are living in subhuman conditions in our city.”

Among the motions passed is directing the CAO to write the province to request immediate plans to create affordable housing, as well as wrap-around service for encampments.

More park sites would be needed

Even if the additional tent sites had been approved, municipal staff said it would still not meet the total need, and more park sites may have to be considered in the months to come.

“Unfortunately, the growth in the number of people experiencing homelessness is expected to continue,” the report said, pointing to lack of affordable housing, food insecurity and challenges accessing physical and mental health care.

It’s estimated large encampment locations, which require weekly garbage service and water delivery, could cost more than $30,000 each per year to maintain.

Utility costs would add another $50,000 t0 $60,000.

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CAO O’Toole said staffing to maintain the locations will also be an issue.

“We can do everything we can do with our existing staff complement (but) I’m not confident it will be enough,” she said.

“We’ll be working with our existing bylaw enforcement staff and we’ll be servicing any additional needs through next year’s budget process.”

The Parks and Recreation budget would be affected as well, with the loss of revenue for closing certain parks, and the increased costs of restroom maintenance and resources.

“Municipal expenditures in response to homelessness are increasing and will exceed the budget for this year,” the report said.

“Staff will continue to seek funding from other levels of government and clarification of roles and responsibilities.”

Non-park spaces and tiny homes

Council was also asked to “consider other options” aside from park spaces, including parking lots, right of ways, surplus lands and leasing private land.

The report also asked councillors to consider transitional or permanent housing.

“One type of housing inventory missing from Halifax’s housing stock is tiny homes,” the report said.

“These are cost-effective housing units that can provide a stable living environment for individuals experiencing homelessness … These units can be built more cheaply than a traditional housing unit.”

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As for the costs of temporary home communities, the report stated it would be “impossible at this time” to make that estimation.

“The scope of projects, as determined by potential future negotiations with the Province of Nova Scotia, will determine these costs. Staff will return to Regional Council at a future date with more information.”

Councillors voted unanimously to ask staff for a report exploring the feasibility of purchasing and installing pre-fabricated structures.

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