Two words come to mind when Laura Patterson describes tenting in the winter: “Fucking horrible.”
The housing advocate and lifelong Halifax resident spent October through March last year supporting people sleeping rough at People’s Park. For six months, Patterson and a rotating cast of four to six volunteers would trade shifts at the now-vacant tent encampment on Chebucto Road at Dublin Street. The work was varied and without pause: They would 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 tells The Coast.
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 damp. There’s no way to safeguard belongings. And the thin nylon structures aren’t built for Halifax winters, where the wind and rain turn umbrellas to coathangers and cranes into turnstiles. 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.
This winter, she fears, the HRM’s housing crisis is even worse. And the wet and cold weather is only beginning.
Nowhere to go
Those who have spent years supporting Haligonians experiencing homelessness describe the situation as the “worst it’s ever been.”
According to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia’s “by name” list, as of Dec. 13 there are 734 Haligonians who are actively unhoused—40 more than just three weeks ago. This time last year, there were 467. The figure has nearly tripled since 2019.
Shelters are full. Out of the Cold Community Association’s supportive housing facilities have been at capacity since mid-June. Metro Turning Point and Barry House, Shelter Nova Scotia’s two emergency shelters, are also stretched to their limits.
“The reality is, there’s nowhere for anyone to go,” says Sara Landry, a program manager with OTC. “We would love to be able to support more people… and we try our best to, you know, give them blankets and to let them use the phone or things like that. But the reality is, there really is nowhere for folks to go and not enough funding out there for even stopgap measures like tents, let alone emergency shelters.”
And while there are myriad causes, structural and systemic, that have fed into a rise in homelessness—and brought about the shelters’ current capacity issues—Julie Slen, manager of Shelter NS’s drop-in centre, The Hub, told us last month that Halifax’s housing precarity largely boils down to one thing: “There’s just simply no affordable housing.”
‘The need is desperate’
According to the Nova Scotia Association of Realtors, the average price of a Halifax or Dartmouth-area home in October was up 7.8% from the same time last year, to $517,000. And it’s worse for renters: The cost of leasing a one-bedroom apartment has climbed by 18.4% since last year to $1,957 per month, as per the latest Rentals.ca report.
But while the cost of housing has climbed ever-higher, Haligonians’ wages haven’t kept pace. As of Canada’s 2021 Census, the median after-tax income for Halifax households was $69,500—and more than 40% of Halifax households brought home less than $60,000 in a single year. If you were to follow the “30% rule” that recommends spending less than a third of your monthly income on rent, then two-in-five Halifax households can’t comfortably afford the cost of even a one-bedroom apartment. It’s beginning to show in Halifax’s tent communities.
Outreach worker Eric Jonsson has worked to support those living on Halifax’s streets for more than a decade. One of three street navigators in the HRM’s core, along with Shawn Parker and Rebecca Whitzman, Jonsson has seen firsthand how the housing crisis and a higher cost of living have brought more Haligonians to the brink of homelessness.
If you were to follow the “30% rule” that recommends spending less than a third of your monthly income on rent, then two in five Halifax households can’t comfortably afford the cost of even a one-bedroom apartment.
It’s a “whole cross-section of society” living outdoors, he tells The Coast, then catches himself. “Well, there’s no rich people living outside, but there’s people who are working, people who are on disability, people who are on a pension… there's a whole bunch of different people outside who just can’t find a place to live.
“I know one couple [where] the wife stays home, stays in the tent and watches the stuff while the husband goes to work every day and that is how they live,” he told SaltWire in October. “Clearly something is wrong here.”
Halifax regional council knows there’s a problem.
“It’s been a heck of a crisis out there on our streets,” District 5 councillor Sam Austin told his peers at Tuesday’s regional council meeting.
Austin was lobbying his fellow councillors to support an expansion of the HRM’s street navigator program. In its 14th year, the program provides direct support to people experiencing homelessness by guiding them toward housing, employment and other community services. (Currently, the HRM funds two navigator programs: One in downtown Dartmouth and the north end, and another in downtown Halifax.) Except regional council being regional council—which is to say, bureaucracy churning as slowly as Quinpool Road traffic—what was actually proposed was to direct new CAO Cathie O’Toole to provide a report on potentially expanding the HRM’s street navigator program… if there’s the budget for it. (It’s anticipated the expanded program would cost the HRM $100,000.)
That wasn’t slow enough for some council members. Councillor Tim Outhit suggested council should defer Austin’s motion “to have a proper reevaluation of the navigator program and parameters and coverage areas.” Councillor Pam Lovelace wondered why there wasn’t more support for outreach in the HRM’s outlying communities. “The need is desperate,” she said. Councillor Shawn Cleary stressed the importance of pushing the motion along to “where this gets to a budget discussion.”
Ultimately, councillors voted unanimously in favour of Austin’s motion to recommend a staff report. But they acknowledged shortcomings to the navigator program, too. The role can only guide people experiencing homelessness toward the services and supports that exist—which are sparse, understaffed and underfunded.
“What we need is more of what’s out there. And the province needs to step up and provide more of what’s out there,” Cleary said.
Councillor Waye Mason pointed to the province’s deeper pockets: “They have a $1.4 billion budget; they should be funding this.”
Funding and missteps
Last October, Nova Scotia’s government pledged $10 million to support people experiencing homelessness. The money, slated to come over two years and fund “wrap-around supports, shelter and culturally relevant housing,” is earmarked for nonprofits across the province to run and maintain emergency shelters. About $1.6 million was set aside for the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre’s Diamond Bailey House on College Street. Another $713,000 would go annually to Shelter NS to “stabilize” operations, CBC News reported at the time. The province also put forward $3.5 million to help purchase and run The Overlook, a supportive housing project with 65 beds that opened in Dartmouth this week.
Meanwhile, Halifax ponied up $500,000 from its own coffers last year to fund “emergency housing.” The HRM also set aside $20 million in federal funds to create 137 new affordable housing units. Council ended up spending the half-million on 24 modular housing units, described as “trailer-like structures,” that could house up to 73 people. The plan last fall was to have people living in the units “before the snow flies.” Instead, it took nearly 10 months for the last modular homes at Centennial Pool to be move-in ready—and by then, the $500,000 budget had soared to $3.2 million.
The lengthy delays and cost overruns were emblematic of a bigger problem within the HRM: Council seemed to have lost the plot in addressing a homelessness crisis across Halifax.
Last June, the HRM approved four areas for overnight camping: The Barrington Street Green Space, Lower Flinn Park, Dartmouth’s Green Road Park and the Geary Street Green Space. Those weren’t chosen for their access to nearby support services—which are largely found downtown and in the north end—but because, well, they were far enough away from schools, daycares, playgrounds, sports fields and most places people want to be.
Not everyone sleeping outside wanted to use the HRM’s designated sites. Many opted for green spaces downtown, from the old Halifax Memorial Library to People’s Park. That prompted a clash with city officials and police. On Aug. 19, 2021, Halifax Regional Police and city staffers chainsawed and dismantled temporary shelters across the city. Staffers threw tents in the garbage. There were on-the-ground reports of police using mace. People living in tents were issued tickets for “camping in parks without permission” under city bylaw P-600.
Behind the scenes, as emails and documents obtained by The Coast through a Freedom of Information request would reveal, HRM council was in panic mode.
“I do not want to turn this into a finger pointing session, but this issue is not going to go away,” councillor Outhit emailed his colleagues, one month before the shelter siege. “We are losing the communication and education battle to the folks that put up the shelters.” He wrote that he had “never received” such a volume of emails “on any topic” and suggested that council “use this as an opportunity to address an issue that is obviously very important to many.”
Councillor Paul Russell shared similar concerns with mayor Mike Savage, after an earlier city attempt to remove a number of shelters from unsanctioned locations. The city had given a move-out deadline of Jul. 13, 2021, but acted to remove shelters four days sooner than it had given notice for.
“This screams of bad planning,” he wrote in a private email to Savage on July 9, 2021.
“Just between us,” Savage wrote to Russell that same day, “we set a deadline of the 13th. It was never the intent that we wait til then and take them all down… Remember, we are providing options far better than to have human beings living in sheds like animals.”
‘A potential death sentence’
Patterson isn’t particularly interested in passing blame between the HRM and the province. Even with tens of millions in multi-level funding, there still aren’t enough emergency shelter beds—and not everyone sleeping outside feels safe or comfortable in a shelter. What she wants to see, at least in the short term, are warming centres for the winter: Places where someone could shower, dry off, maybe get a bit of food and make calls on a public phone.
“I feel like I’m crafting all the same tweets, I’m making all the same arguments this year that I did last year,” Patterson says, calling it “incredibly frustrating” to not have better options available.
“Winter comes every year,” she tells The Coast. “And yet, every year, last year and this year, it’s the same: There was no work done in the lead up to winter to try and get a better solution available for people, even though everybody on council, everybody in the provincial government knows that the housing crisis is worse this year than it was last year.”
A community-run warming centre operates out of the basement of St. Matthew’s Church on Barrington Street, but it’s run on limited funds and volunteer power. To manage its budget, the centre opens its doors only when public health has declared an extreme weather event. That means temperatures have to be at least -15C with windchill or there needs to be 25 centimetres of snow over 24 hours. The centre broadcasts its openings on Twitter.
That doesn’t help on chilly nights when temperatures are still below freezing, even if they haven’t met the extreme weather threshold. And not every person sleeping outside has access to a phone to know when the centre is open, Patterson says.
“As long as there are people that are living outside that are unhoused, we need a consistently open warming centre for people, whether that’s, four hours a day, six, eight, 10, 12 or 24,” she says. “Because when something may be open, but it may not be… people aren’t going to leave stuff behind in their tents, they're not going to make the trip.”
The absence of current options weighs on Kat Stein, program manager for Out of the Cold.
“When there’s nowhere to go, then what is the option?” Stein asked us in November. “The option is a tent outside, and honestly that's a potential death sentence for people once it gets really cold.”
Jonsson says in the absence—or shortcomings—of official supports, the people he interacts with on the street develop an “informal network” to survive through the winter.
“They know which banks have the good security guards that will let them sleep on cold days… They'll know which libraries are open when, and where in the library you can sleep,” he tells The Coast.
But still, he admits, that’s a patchwork solution—and says even his role, and that of other support workers, come with limitations.
“We always talk about funding and band-aid solutions because they’re cheap and quick and we can point to things saying, ‘Look, we're doing something,’” he tells The Coast. “We can fund all these support workers who do good work too, but really, it’s just like we’re fighting over fewer and fewer housing availabilities. So until you bite the bullet and really invest in affordable housing, all these band-aid solutions aren't going to do very much.”
—With files from Kaija Jussinoja, Morgan Mullin and Victoria Walton.