Look beyond the chain-link fence at the corner of Chebucto Road and Dublin Street, and a story emerges. It’s there, scrawled in permanent marker, on a plywood board that would be easy to miss, if not for the fact that it keeps disappearing—then coming back again, albeit in different forms. One day, it’s a pamphlet; another, nylon strands of red tent fabric woven through the fence’s chains. It’s a story, but it’s also a poem—and as of late, a battleground. On a wet January morning, the latest skirmish means the plywood is strewn across freshly-laid pavement ten feet inside the fence’s perimeter. Its title, though, is still legible: “Memorializing Meagher Park On Your Way Home,” it reads. You have to squint to read the rest of the passage—it rained last night, and some of the writing has faded—but the meaning is clear. You remember the tent encampments from two years ago, even though the park was cleared out and fenced off before you arrived in Halifax. And even if you never saw the Meagher Park encampment (referred to by its residents as People’s Park), you’ve seen others like it. Your mind flashes to one that’s been growing outside of City Hall for months.
You think of the stories you’ve heard of people working full-time jobs and still falling into housing precarity. You remember Halifax’s housing director warning HRM council a year ago that it would “have to figure out how refugee camps work” if the province ever lifted its rent cap. In that time, the number of actively unhoused Haligonians has climbed from roughly 800 to nearly 1,100, according to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia. You think of the tents you’ve seen in places they weren’t before: Ball diamonds, back alleys, that corner of the park where you’re used to letting your dog run. You feel a pang of guilt for the times you’ve met a person’s gaze next to those tents and failed to offer some shared acknowledgement of humanity. You know it’s been too many times to count.
Your mind returns to the poem. You wonder how long before it disappears again. How much longer, too, before it returns.
Sue Goyette had an inkling this might happen. When the Halifax poet laureate and novelist wrote the poem and hung it from Meagher Park’s fence at the end of December—reflecting on how a tent can be “a wind instrument that lifts and baffles its way through a night,” and how the soon-to-reopen park, which closed in August 2022 after the last of some two-dozen tenters left, will ask its visitors “something important about yourself”—her partner offered a prediction.
“It won’t last a day,” he told her.
He was almost right.
Speaking by phone with The Coast, Goyette says she was moved to write something when she saw the park—which had become a human face for Halifax’s housing crisis in 2021 and 2022—looked set to reopen without any nod to the role it had played as a shelter space for the better part of a year. Gone were the tents, along with any hint of their presence. Gone were the pallets. Gone were the people—though not all, it would seem, into better housing situations, even if that was the HRM’s stated intention.
“That whole experience of the tent village, and the community care, and the intensity of the situation, the complexity of it for the neighbourhood, was redacted,” says Goyette, who lives a short walk from Meagher Park.
Soon, her artwork would be, too.
Within two days, Goyette’s plywood poem had disappeared from the park’s fence. She doesn’t know who took it down. But she knows the tent encampment she’s memorializing wasn’t welcomed by the whole neighbourhood. Police visited often. Like many Haligonians, some park residents used substances or listened to loud music—but unlike their neighbours with homes (and the benefit of privacy), they had tents. And while Goyette understands the friction that caused—“I live here too; it was tricky,” she tells The Coast—she figured her poem would last “a couple of days [longer], at least.
“This was a bigger issue with people who didn’t have homes, and the rents were going up so fast at that time that everything felt impossible, and nothing was being done,” Goyette adds, “and we’re seeing how things are being done slowly, but so slowly.”
Laura Patterson remembers the cold months in People’s Park. The housing advocate and lifelong Halifax resident spent six months, from October 2021 through March 2022, supporting people sleeping rough in the park. Along with four to six other volunteers, she would trade shifts and greet newcomers, offer tents, pallets and sleeping bags—“just try to do what we could to make sure that people were as safe as possible,” she told The Coast in December 2022.
It was far from an ideal situation. Tents, Patterson says, are “not a good primary residence at the best of times.” They’re small, cramped and often wet. There’s no way to safeguard belongings. And the thin nylon structures aren’t built for Halifax winters, where the wind and rain can turn tarps and tentpoles into life-sized origami. But with few alternatives and a housing crisis that even Nova Scotia’s housing minister has described as having “reached a critical point,” Patterson and her peers saw little else they could do.
Meagher Park wasn’t an officially-sanctioned shelter site. But for those who worked on the frontlines, it felt like making the best of a bad hand. Shelters across the HRM were often full—and in some cases, residents who had been offered temporary shelter on the city’s dime found themselves sent back to the streets with little warning.
Police had violently evicted several other tent sites across Halifax in August 2021, pepper-spraying crowds and arresting 24 people. And soon, the encampment residents of Meagher Park, which had grown to a group of about 34 at the largest, ended up in those same crosshairs. In February 2022, Halifax Regional Police and HRM staff tore down a volunteer-built pantry stocked with granola bars, sandwiches and Gatorade for the tenters because of “the potential fire hazard it presented,” the HRP told The Coast at the time. In a follow-up statement, the HRM called it an “illegal and unsafe structure.”
Patterson was there when the police came. She’d been part of the efforts to build the pantry, “to try to keep food edible and not covered in mud and frozen,” she told The Coast. She says the police came “because we didn’t have a permit and we didn’t have permission.” But whenever the volunteers had asked the city for resources, “we’ve never received any help whatsoever,” Patterson added. “So no, we didn’t ask, because there’s no point.”
The HRM issued eviction notices to Meagher Park’s residents on July 5, 2022, citing “deteriorating health and safety conditions.” Tenters were given until July 17 to leave. Staff followed up with another warning on July 27. By early August, after a special regional council meeting, then-CAO Jacques Dubé threatened “imminent” police action to remove the park’s remaining residents—by then, somewhere between four and five people. And on Aug. 12, 2022, city staff and HRP officers fenced the park off. It has been closed to the public ever since.
Speaking to CBC News in 2022, councillor David Hendsbee said the park needed to be “dug up and replanted.”
The HRP said the park was already vacated when they arrived on Aug. 12, which park volunteer Calista Hills somewhat confirmed to The Coast in August 2022. She said the police “helped” one person move to a city-approved park the Saturday night before, and “harassed” another resident into leaving that Monday morning.
“The remaining people left because they didn’t want to face persecution by the police or city,” Hills told The Coast.
Goyette didn’t sit idly for long after her poem was taken down. On Jan. 2, 2024, she posted about it on Instagram and asked her followers: “Should I put it up again or leave it live here online with all of us?”
In the end, she didn’t have to: Two days later, writer and activist Sadie Beaton had installed her own plywood replacement. A longtime Halifax resident who has since relocated to Wolfville, Beaton says her involvement “was a bit random and impulsive,” considering she’s no longer a local. But at the time of the People’s Park tent removals, she tells The Coast, she lived “within a 10 minute walk” of the park and had been a volunteer “in various ways” during that period.
“I just felt like [the poem] had to go back up,” Beaton says, speaking by phone with The Coast. “And I just happened to have a piece of plywood that I could almost see in the corner of my eye. And so I grabbed a marker and wrote it again.”
Beaton had to make a trip into Halifax anyway. So, she brought along the replacement.
It, too, was taken down. (Beaton’s version is the one that now lies on the ground inside the fence.) But it wasn’t alone anymore: Governor general award-winning poet Annick MacAskill published Goyette’s poem as a limited-run pamphlet and donated the proceeds to housing provider Out of the Cold. The printed poems all sold out—and MacAskill began to find buyers outside Nova Scotia. Some copies ended up tucked into the fence at Meagher Park.
For MacAskill, who lives in Halifax and runs Opaat Press, the poem spoke to something deeply human.
“I just think in general, we need a different response to homelessness,” she tells The Coast. “And when we have these grassroots responses to homelessness, to try to make the lives of [unhoused people] slightly more livable, maybe we can question why our first instinct is to get rid of them.”
Both the HRM and the province are acting to address the housing crisis—though you can argue about how swiftly the change is coming, or if it’s enough. (It’s not, but the same is true for most Canadian cities.) The first of 200 emergency shelters to be installed across Nova Scotia arrives in Lower Sackville at the end of the month. Another tiny shelter village is planned for the Halifax Forum parking lot.
As for Meagher Park, it remains fenced off—“closed for maintenance,” as the signs read along the fence’s perimeter. If you walk past it, you’ll see a handful of new pathways the city has paved through the corner lot. In an emailed statement, a city spokesperson tells The Coast that crews have also installed new lighting. There are further plans for landscaping work in the spring.
“Our intention is to re-open the space by the end of the year,” the HRM spokesperson says.
Goyette is hopeful that in the meantime, the fence will become a canvas, of sorts, for more works of art—and more reflections on community.
“Maybe this is how the conversation starts,” she tells The Coast. “We’re not going anywhere—and we’re not saying anything terrible; we’re just saying this happened, and we don’t want to forget it.
“This isn’t about cutting people off; it’s more of an invitation for conversation—and maybe community healing that needs to happen, rather than just pretending it didn’t.”
—With files from Victoria Walton and Kaija Jussinoja. A hat tip, as well, to Philip Moscovitch, who first reported on the story in the Halifax Examiner.