No respite from COVID at Halifax shelters

Outbreaks have caused doors to close, leaving unhoused people with no options.

The Dartmouth modular units are here, but a COVID outbreak in shelters is slowing down move-in.

The Dartmouth modular housing units have finally finished construction, according to the city. “The municipality expects installation for the majority of modular units (providing access to 24 of the total 26 spaces) at the Dartmouth site, located on Alderney Drive near Church Street to be completed tomorrow,” said an HRM statement issued Monday, January 10.

The two units that won’t be ready are the accessible units, which are estimated to be done by the end of January.

The 24 units were first mentioned all the way back in August after the violent eviction of people from crisis shelters at the old library grounds. Now, nearly five months later, the modular units sit at the corner of Alderney Drive and Flotilla Lane, waiting for residents and staff from service provider Out of the Cold to move in.

But thanks to COVID-19, the official occupancy of the units will likely be delayed an additional few days. “We have COVID right now, there’s one staff isolating,” says Michelle Malette, Out of the Cold’s executive director, in a phone call with The Coast over the weekend.

And Out of the Cold isn’t the only shelter being affected by a COVID outbreak. “Other folks have also had COVID exposures—and there’s probably no beds anyway,” says Malette. “Shelters are always full, and Salvation Army had an exposure, Turning Point had an exposure, we have one now. Adsum and Phoenix went into hotels and I think that was to try to avoid exposures and try to work with the staff they had.”

Currently, according to provincial regulations, only high-risk congregate settings and health care settings are receiving government aid with contact tracing. The province says shelters are included in this, but would not provide data on individual outbreaks at shelters.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen now ‘cause we’re going to have to have everyone tested,” Malette says. “But I think [the city is] hoping that they would have an occupancy permit on Tuesday.”

Even if there were available shelter beds—and there haven’t been any all winter—those shelters are closing their doors to disinfect and perform testing on staff and residents, and those who aren’t already inside are forced to find shelter elsewhere.

click to enlarge The parking lot at Centennial Pool will be the eventual destination for the Halifax modular units. - THE COAST
The Coast
The parking lot at Centennial Pool will be the eventual destination for the Halifax modular units.

While the Dartmouth modular units are just about ready for move-in, the timeline for the Halifax units is still being extended on a near-weekly basis. According to a report presented to Halifax Regional Council on Tuesday January 11, the units will now be ready sometime in March, with the construction process starting later this month.

“The projected start of the installation of the modular units in Halifax is late January 2022. Exact timing for occupancy is dependent upon the province, which is responsible for determining placement of individuals and providing wrap-around services onsite through its service provider,” says the report, signed by project manager Michael MacDonald and external affairs manager Paul Johnston.

click to enlarge One of the units that HRM originally planned to use for modular housing. - THE COAST
The Coast
One of the units that HRM originally planned to use for modular housing.

The report also recommends regional council spend an additional $1.2 million on the units, bringing the total for the project to $4.4 million—nearly 40 percent more than the original $3.2 million cost projections. And even at $4.4 million, almost 20 times the original $240,000 allocated for units that turned out to be moudly, the units will only have enough room for 62 people, not nearly enough to house the city’s estimated 472 unhoused people.

The report says the price increase is due to several things, including renting office trailers, finding “unsuitable site material” under the Dartmouth parking lot and providing security. At Tuesday’s meeting, council unanimously voted in favour of the increased funding.

But even with funding approved, bureaucratic hurdles and finger-pointing persist. Downtown Halifax councillor Waye Mason tells The Coast that the community meeting he’d been planning for January 16 will be postponed because “the province has not confirmed an operator” for the units yet.

The provincial department of community services says it’s waiting on HRM to finalize “details around these units” and would have more information “in the near future” about service providers. The province’s Affordable Housing Commission also recently put out its latest progress report, indicating that since the new plan—titled Charting a Course for Affordable Housing in Nova Scotia—was released in May 2021, just 17 of the 60 recommendations have been implemented.

Meanwhile, the municipality’s designated housing homelessness coordinator, Erica Fleck, has returned to her original position as head of emergency management. Filling the role will now be Rebecca Whitzman, whose official title is “homelessness coordinator” as Fleck’s was, but while Fleck’s background was with the military, Whitzman has experience as a trained social worker and her LinkedIn lists past work at Shelter NS, Out of the Cold, Adsum House and Phoenix Youth. HRM’s communication department denied a request for an interview with Whitzman.