Police and city staff tear down pantry at People’s Park

Officers watched as municipal employees dismantled the structure under the cover of darkness Saturday night.

The kitchen structure took months of work to build, but it took city staff less than an hour to tear it down.
Update (March 2): Halifax Regional Police public information officer John McLeod tells The Coast "we made the decision based on the totality of the circumstances and concern for the safety of the public, neighborhood and the residents. Information we received related to the nature of the structure and the potential fire hazard it presented were important factors that were considered."

When asked to specify what building code violations were broken or how they came to understand cooking would take place in the pantry, police said "please use our previous response as our comment on the matter."

“We call it the kitchen,” says Laura Patterson. But in reality, the kitchen at People’s Park has no running water, no lights and no refrigerator. It consists of two folding tables in a tent, stacked high with granola bars, pre-made cold cut sandwiches, Gatorade and packets of beef jerky.

“It’s really more of a pantry,” Patterson, a park volunteer, explains. “Somewhere to store condiments, somewhere to grab a plate and a bowl."

People have been living at what officials still call Meagher Park, at the corner of Chebucto Road and Dublin Street, since last August. But in the past two months, the park (which has anywhere from three to 15 residents at a time, because the population is transient) has been gathering lumber to build a real kitchen. Of course, it still wouldn’t be “real”—the occupants of the park are unhoused people seeking crisis shelter; they don’t have generators for electricity, and aren’t permitted to use camp stoves onsite due to fire risks.

The plan was to construct a wooden platform and wall framing with a tarp overhead that would at least keep out the elements and the rats. “Just the basic need to try to keep food edible and not covered in mud and not frozen,” Patterson says.

click to enlarge The "kitchen floor" is pictured here in early January - THE COAST
The Coast
The "kitchen floor" is pictured here in early January

Supplies were donated by the community, and in early January the deck portion of the kitchen was built. Patterson says police have been aware of the kitchen since the beginning.

“Multiple police officers have been called when it was being built,” says Patterson. “They’ve responded to those complaints, we’ve explained what we’re doing, and they’ve said ‘okay’ and they left.”

On Saturday, February 26, a handful of residents, former residents and volunteers planned to finish the structure. But shortly after the kitchen’s vertical frame went up, police were on scene.

“Police pulled up and told us to stop and that if we continued building we would be arrested,” says Patterson. So they stopped.

By 6pm, police had left. Feeling like the situation was resolved, Patterson went home to the north end. But just after 10pm she got an alarming text from a park resident “saying that he heard drills, he heard crowbars, he heard smashing.”

By the time Patterson got back to the park, it was too late: municipal staff were midway through dismantling the structure, and three police vehicles were watching the scene. Just before 10:30pm, the wooden materials, which Patterson estimates have a $1,200 value, were driven away in the back of a Halifax-branded pickup truck.

What had taken months of community work was dismantled in less than an hour.

“They just said because we didn’t have a permit and we didn’t have permission,” Patterson says, claiming there are good reasons why they did’s seek permission. “We’ve asked the city for a lot of things, and we’ve never received any help whatsoever. So no, we didn’t ask, because there’s no point.”

The mood at the park was grim after police left, but on Sunday, less than 24 hours later, public support was starting to fill the void left by the city’s removal efforts. Dartmouth company Well Engineered Inc. has offered to build a structure that is code-compliant, if the city allows it. “People would love that,” Patterson says. “We would love anything that was a little better than what we’re going to have, which is nothing right now.”

On Sunday afternoon, HRM issued a statement about the removal, calling the kitchen “an illegal and unsafe structure.” The release also says the structure “was intended to serve as a cooking facility for occupants of the park,” which residents and volunteers maintain is untrue.

This all comes at the same time Halifax Regional Council is in the process of deciding whether or not to approve an HRP budget increase for the upcoming fiscal year. Budget talks are set to continue at Monday’s Board of Police Commissioners meeting.

click to enlarge The kitchen tent at People's Park. - THE COAST
The Coast
The kitchen tent at People's Park.

For now, the People’s Park will continue using the kitchen tent, which is muddier, smaller and colder than a wooden floor would be. Patterson says it’s just status quo for the residents and volunteers at the park.

“One of the worst things about it is that nobody here is surprised,” she says. “What really would’ve been surprising is if we’d been able to get this done.”