Halifax Regional Council met today, August 31, for the first time since the shelter siege on August 18, when 24 people were arrested while trying to protect their neighbours living on the old library grounds from violent eviction by police and city staff.
One of the first topics of discussion on today’s meeting agenda was a motion was put forward by mayor Mike Savage regarding crisis housing shelters. “We all have a role to support each other when things are difficult, and we all know how many people are challenged for housing,” said the mayor while introducing it.
The motion directs the city’s chief administrative officer, Jacques Dube, to approve spending up to $500,000 on emergency housing, and to work with the department of community services to figure out how best to spend that money.
“It is time, we can do it, I believe we should do it and, in fact, I think we have to do it,” said Savage. “We have to make sure that everyone has a decent place to spend the night. I don’t want to be the mayor of a city where people don’t have the ability to spend the night in at least somewhat comfortable conditions and give themselves a chance to achieve their potential.”
While many councillors had spoken up in email newsletters and on social media about how the events of August 18 should have gone down, this motion was the first opportunity councillors had to speak about the matter on the record—and speak they did.
“We have insufficient capacity in HRM to deal with this, in part because this is not something HRM has had to do since 1996. We don’t have a psychologist, we don’t have social workers, we don’t have housing support people because all that’s happening over at the province,” said Waye Mason, councillor for District 7, which includes the downtown area where a large portion of the shelters are located.
Mason joked that the municipality should hire “big shot” lawyers to bill the province for all the housing work the city will be doing, adding that he was “prepared to spend millions to get people out from under tents before the snow flies.”
Cole Harbour’s Becky Kent was one of the only councillors who spoke directly to those who were there on August 18. She apologized for the city’s actions, calling the events “violent and disturbing.”
“I want to say how sorry I am that those unintended consequences, of what we thought was a good plan, unfolded,” Kent said. “I never want to see something like that happen again in this city.”
But Kent also asked for her constituents to be a little more helpful and less critical when doing her job for her. “I’m going to put a shout out there for those of you who are sending all of the messages to us, I would encourage you to send solutions,” Kent said. “Send us your ideas. That’s what is most helpful.”
Other councillors, however, kept the focus on themselves and their own experiences, even though none of them were on site at the old library two Wednesdays ago when the evictions occurred. Tony Mancini of District 6 (Dartmouth East) told the mayor “I know it personally has been very difficult for you, as for everyone.”
“I am concerned about the level of public discourse, the hate in particular that I have received,” said Hammonds Plains councillor Pam Lovelace. “Calling for my head, calling for my resignation, threatening to take myself and my children out of our beds at night.”
Deputy mayor Tim Outhit congratulated himself and other politicians on the great job they’re supposedly doing. “I’ve been so impressed, the mayor’s office, the CAO’s office, the province, so many people trying to react to this appropriately and quickly since it happened almost two weeks ago,” he said.
When discussing calls for HRM to be more transparent and empathetic, CAO Dube said “everybody’s heart was in the right place here.” This is in contrast to what Halifax Regional Police chief Dan Kinsella implied last week, when he defended the use of force and pepper spray on protesters, including minors.
Dube told councilors—who are finally starting to question what they are told rather than accepting it unconditionally—that solutions were being worked on. “It’s very clear that the current supply of short-term accommodation options is not sufficient to meet demand,” Dube said. “So several days ago I began to direct staff to begin an assessment of municipal property and facilities that may be leveraged for temporary accommodations.”
Dube said so far staff had identified three potential private sites which could accommodate up to 40 individuals—even though he said there are 81 documented people in need of shelter.
The CAO was asked several questions of clarification about how the city can go about funding crisis housing, and municipal solicitor John Traves gave his legal opinion on matters including how council could create regulation about how far the shelters should be from playgrounds, schools and the like (which would require a new, additional motion).
“We’ve addressed, for clear reasons of public safety and public health, actions had to be taken,” said Dube. “What we have now, we have a couple of locations that are problematic still, and we want to have conversations with those that are occupying those places before anything further happens.”
In the end, there was a friendly amendment to the motion from Halifax Peninsula North’s Lindell Smith, who requested a monthly update be given to the public for at least the rest of this fiscal year. “Because it’s such an urgent discussion, should we ask that we get an info item at each council?” Smith asked his fellow councillors. “Just so we can kind of keep account of what’s happening.”
The motion passed unanimously after an hour-long discussion.
It was not the only housing-related motion discussed Tuesday. Lower Sackville rep Paul Russell brought a notice of motion that he wants information on how many complaints were made about the shelters, when and where. The CAO said he’d “received hundreds of emails from various folks” about everything from assault to indecent acts, but gave no specifics, saying this information would have to be gathered from both Halifax Regional Police and from the 311 operators and would be provided to council at a later date.
Lovelace proposed a staff report looking at the creation of a committee with “lived experience” on homelessness. After an equally long discussion, Lovelace’s motion also passed unanimously.
Finally, a motion was made by Mason regarding a presentation on the creation of at least 43 affordable housing units as part of the rapid housing initiative, round two. After a presentation from staff, council unanimously approved funding for the three groups that would create the housing: The Affordable Housing Association of NS (65 units), Akoma Holdings (eight units), and Soul’s Harbour (12 units). But these will not be completed until the fall or later.
While councillors and staff sat discussing these motions from the comfort of their own homes, vacation rentals (the CAO was in Tatamagouche) or while using shelters as a backdrop (at one point, Russell’s Zoom background was this photo of a cardboard bed on an alley vent), dozens of unhoused people were left to wonder how the discussions would affect their safety.
A Tuesday morning press release from P.A.D.S. Community Network, which represents the folks currently staying in Meagher Park at the corner of Chebucto and Dublin Streets, says “As the city council meets to discuss its strategy for engaging unhoused community members in the aftermath of last week’s mass evictions, P.A.D.S. Community Network is calling on the city to cease all removals of people living in parks.
“The shelters are full, hotels are increasingly unwilling to shelter unhoused people, and there is no affordable housing available. P.A.D.S. Community Network is committed to the assertion that everyone in our community deserves permanent, accessible, dignified and safer housing. We are willing to work with all stakeholders, including the city, to achieve that goal. If the city council therefore still intends to respond to this crisis with empathy, mass evictions are inexcusable.”