For several months, unhoused people in HRM have been struggling to find a safe place to sleep. Residents “sleeping rough,” as the city has dubbed it, have had municipal workers threaten eviction, seen promises of shelter announced and then revoked and been the focal point of violent police action. Many houseless citizens eventually settled at People’s Park (officially Meagher Park, at the corner of Chebucto and Dublin Streets), a location that’s become a safe place to build community and access resources and support.
In late September, HRM finally decided to take matters into its own hands, not waiting for police, pepper spray or the province to make the housing crisis disappear somehow. “Our goal is to deal with everybody in a way that suits their needs,” said mayor Mike Savage at a press conference where he announced that 73 modular housing units would soon make their way to HRM.
This is despite the municipality’s repeated claims that housing is a provincial responsibility. “The city, we don't have the appropriate skill sets and the capacity to manage the complexities of the unhoused population,” Savage said at the press conference on September 29. “We don't have social workers, mental health services or addiction support. These are forces of the province of Nova Scotia.”
But even while Savage was setting expectations low with talk of provincial responsibility, the city has put a fresh face at the helm of the growing issue. Sitting on Savage’s lefthand side at that press conference was Erica Fleck, the assistant chief of emergency management for the city. Fleck has been dedicated to the housing file for three weeks now, and tells The Coast she’s making progress.
“There’s always a way to go, but am I making a dent? Yes, absolutely,” she says in a Friday morning phone call just before the Thanksgiving long weekend. “I wish I had magic wands for everything, but it’s not an easy problem, it’s a crisis that we have right now.”
Fleck was integral to the decision to acquire the above-mentioned modular units, which were purchased from a BC-based company for $240,000 and have already arrived in Nova Scotia.
“When I was appointed to the position the first thing I did was say OK, what do we have to look at?” she explains. “And with my background, the first thing I thought of was what can we either build quickly or what’s already built that we can move?”
The units themselves are rudimentary but solid. “They're like long trailers with individual rooms inside of them,” says Fleck. Each room has a window and a bed, plus its own bathroom, meaning the only shared space will be the kitchen. There will be 73 bedrooms in total, but the city has yet to figure out exactly how they will be configured.
“There’s a couple of different sizes of them that we have, but there’s eight rooms in a row inside one unit,” says Fleck. “There’s accessible ones and there’s only three in that one.”
Right now, the biggest stress is finding a location for them. The city plans to have one set of modular units on the Halifax side of the harbour, and another set on the Dartmouth side.
“We're stuck with where we can place things,” says Fleck. “Because of the zoning and the land that we have, trying to make that work.” And “they are stackable but we don't want to stack them,” since that would only complicate zoning requirements.
The Dartmouth site is almost figured out. “We’re 99 percent confirmed for a space in Dartmouth,” says Fleck, who’s taking The Coast’s call from her car while onsite at the undisclosed location. “And we’re still working on the Halifax side, it’s a bit more problematic. We’re literally looking at every single piece of land that HRM owns with appropriate zoning.” And although HRM creates its own zoning laws, Fleck says it can’t change them, “the province can.”
Bylaws aside, choosing the right location is a tricky task. The recent conversion of the Gray Arena, in north end Dartmouth, to a temporary housing space received some criticism from NIMBY neighbours.
“That’s going to be a constant battle. Working very closely with the councillors and community, we’re trying,” says Fleck. “We get there’s people that have concerns. And some are very valid, and some are just people who don’t want that in their neighbourhood.”
The modular units can’t be tucked away in some forgotten part of the city—they need to be in an area where residents can access bus routes and wrap-around services. “Although we have a place that may be good from a permitting standpoint, it wouldn’t be great for the people who need to live there,” says Fleck.
The people who will soon move into the modular units haven’t been notified yet. It will be up to service providers like Out of the Cold or the John Howard Society to decide exactly who will fill the units, and this is where the onus goes back to the province.
“The province will need to contract a service provider, and they’re still working on that piece,” says Fleck. “Each service provider has different mandates on who is placed where and when it’s safe to do so…they need to make that determination”
The province didn't respond to The Coast's questions about how far along the progress was except to say, "We are actively working with the City of Halifax on the modular concept and will continue to look for ways we can work with HRM, our community partners, and the Office of Mental Health and Addictions to support individuals experiencing homelessness. This work is ongoing. We will be happy to speak to this when we have more information to share."
This provincial-municipal shared responsibility could cause further delays. But Fleck says “we’re trying to move things as quick as possible,” including hooking up water, power and sewer. She expects the Dartmouth site to be confirmed “100 percent” this week.
But it will likely still be weeks before any units can be occupied. “We just can’t plop stuff down, because then it would be unsafe,” Fleck says. “And we don’t want people to move into them until they’re 100 percent ready.”
With summer behind us and cold weather imminent, the city’s goal is to have people in the modular units “definitely before the snow flies,” says Fleck. “That’s always been our aim, is we don’t want people out on the street in the cold.”