Residents reclaimed Meagher Park after a mass eviction from other parks on Aug 18.

HRM wants to “peacefully close” People’s Park

The city says the park is for everyone, so that’s why some people have to be kicked out.

HRM mayor Mike Savage hasn’t been to Meagher Park since it transformed into People’s Park last August. “I don’t want a confrontation,” he says. “I don’t want to make things worse, I want to make things better.”

Instead, Savage says he’s spoken with people who have lived there, community-based service providers and, of course, the provincial government—the city’s catch-all scapegoat for housing concerns.

But the municipality has been involved in housing lately—to an extent. “For an order of government that doesn't have direct responsibility for homelessness,” the mayor says. “There's a lot of people [on city staff] who have taken it upon themselves.”

The city’s foremost efforts have gone into purchasing and installing modular units on municipally-owned property. Over the past six months, HRM’s original $500,000 funding for modulars has increased to nearly $5 million. Finally, in mid-January, the 26 Dartmouth modulars began housing many of the people that were in the Gray Arena for the winter.

When the Halifax modulars open, the mayor says everyone at the People’s Park will be offered a spot. “The kind of community that you see at Meagher Park right now, we're hoping that we could replicate at the modular units on the Halifax side,” says Savage, adding that this winter, the city hasn’t acted on by-law violations. “On occasions when we moved people from places like Meagher Park to the Gray Arena, we haven't gone in and demolished Meagher Park while people were gone.”

But the 38 modular units on Cogswell Street in Halifax won’t be ready for move-in until at least May 6, according to HRM’s latest estimates. In the meantime, a handful of people—sometimes more—are still living in tents at People’s Park. Now that spring has officially arrived, park volunteers and residents worry about a repeat of August 18, when people living in tents and crisis shelters outside the old Halifax Memorial Library had their homes unceremoniously destroyed, and 24 protesters were arrested.

“I’m terrified,” says volunteer Vicky Levack. “Because the city and the mayor specifically has changed his rhetoric around the park. Before it was ‘Yes, human rights,’ and now he’s going ‘These people are dangerous, the community doesn’t feel safe.’ Even if that was true, and I don’t think it is, you can’t just tell them ‘We don’t know where you can go but you can’t stay here.’”

Mayor Savage says the plan for the park hasn’t changed, despite an email from Halifax CAO Jacques Dubé that appears to dispute that. “I remain optimistic that in the coming weeks you will participate in a process to peacefully close the park,” reads an email from Dubé to P.A.D.S. Community Network on March 15. (P.A.D.S., for its part, hasn’t overseen the park since last fall.)

When asked about the discrepancy in communication, Savage says Dubé’s words and his aren’t contradictory, and that there’s no specific timeline for closing the park. “The goal has always been that we would find suitable, dignified accommodations for people who are living rough at a park at Meagher Park,” says Savage. “And then we’ll clean up the park and we would allow everybody to have access to it again.”

The city’s messaging change appears to have begun after city staff’s late-night dismantling of a food storage structure on February 25. Savage says at this point, the city won’t support anything that further “entrenches” the people living there. “I don't want to make more permanence to Meagher Park,” he says.

Savage says the city won’t change its rules, including by-law P-600 which could be amended by HRM council to allow a food structure and “camping” in a city park. “There’s a reason for by-laws,” he says. “And we have to make sure that we take into account the health and safety of all citizens, including people who are homeless.”

On March 22, advocates from P.A.D.S met with city councillors to discuss amending the by-law, but the group says in a tweet that “no councillor committed to putting forward such a motion.”

When asked about food storage at the park, the mayor says “we’re building a kitchen at the Halifax modulars, that’s where we hope people will go to live and be fed.” But the completion of the modulars is still six weeks away. In the meantime, Savage says residents at the park should eat food that’s delivered there and not keep food on site.

Park volunteers say that’s easier said than done, and even when food gets delivered there needs to be a place to store leftovers or dish out food safely. “We have power bars and drinks and jerky and various snacky-type foods,” says Levack. “And we need a food storage place because it gets muddy and it gets wet.”

Savage says the violent eviction residents fear won’t happen. “Our goal is to not to have any kind of confrontation,” he says. “We don't want it as a city, council doesn't want it, police don't want it, nobody wants it.”

But police once again appeared a the park when volunteers tried to build a wooden deck on March 4. Savage says the city hears complaints from nearby homeowners who have concerns with Meagher Park’s current state. “There are people in the area that don't feel that they can use the park that they've always used,” he says. “So we want to find a solution that's good for everybody and avoid confrontation.”

When asked whether the park’s current inhabitants are a part of that community, Savage doesn’t hesitate. “By staying there, they make other people feel less safe and less welcome in that area. And,” the mayor pauses to sigh, “here’s the thing: in government, we have to make decisions.”

But Levack thinks optics are more of a motive than safety. There are an estimated 502 unhoused people in the province, according to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia’s by-name list.

“Even if you moved everybody at the park into those modulars tomorrow, the park is still going to be needed for other people,” she says. “They want to get rid of People’s Park because it’s the most visible.”

About The Author

Victoria Walton

Victoria has been a full-time reporter with The Coast since April 2020, covering everything from COVID-19 to small business to politics and social justice. Originally from the Annapolis Valley, she graduated from the University of King’s College School of Journalism in 2017.

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