In another time, Kat Stein may have been excited about the rapidly approaching winter—that sense of joy knowing they’d soon be cosying up under a blanket while the first snow falls or sipping a hot chocolate on the first truly cold day. But now, the program manager at Out of the Cold Community Association only feels impending doom. “I'm worried about all of our unhoused neighbours who are outside and have nowhere to go,” Stein says.“I just kind of wish that everyone felt a little bit of that impending doom, and maybe some more action would happen.”
The temperatures in Halifax continue to drop as we enter the winter season, and more people will be facing the elements living outside than ever before. Part of OTC’s work is to help people find a shelter bed or housing, but right now there’s next to nothing to offer them. OTC’s supportive housing facility is full, and across the city Stein says the options are slim to none.
“Shelters are just a band aid solution to a crisis and right now that band aid is full, and we don't even have that to be able to offer to people,” they say. ”When there's nowhere to go then what is the option? The option is a tent outside, and honestly that's a potential death sentence for people once it gets really cold.”
According to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia’s “by name” list, as of November 22 there are 694 Haligoians who are actively unhoused, four more than just last week. This time last year, that number was 409. AHA’s count includes anyone without a safe, permanent address: People staying in shelters, funded hotels, transitional housing and residential recovery programs, as well as those living outside in encampments or Tyvek shelters.
As for people living outside, specifically, outreach workers from a variety of organizations surveyed those sleeping rough across the HRM this week, and counted a total of 94.
“It's the worst it's ever been,” says Julie Slen, manager of Shelter Nova Scotia’s drop-in centre, The Hub. “It's impacting a larger portion of the population because there's just simply no affordable housing, and I expect that that trend will increase.”
She says 45 people used The Hub’s services in the span of three hours on Tuesday, including a woman who is sleeping in her car with her son despite having a full-time job. Four people came in with trench foot. In the last eight weeks, The Hub has given out 100 sleeping bags and 40 tents.
Metro Turning Point and Barry House, Shelter NS’s emergency shelters, are full. Its supportive housing sites are full. “Our solution on some days to homelessness, to just put it in perspective, is to say ‘well, here's a tent, and you and your child can go sleep in this tent,’ or ‘you, an 80 year-old man can go sleep in this tent. That's what I can offer you today,’” Slen says. ”People's lives are at stake—the cold is not forgiving.”
As a street outreach worker at OTC, Nathan Doucet spends his days driving around the city delivering the supplies people living outside need to survive—blankets, sleeping bags, tarps, tents, palets, socks, hats—anything that will help people fortify their shelters against the cold. “Everyone's just kind of scrambling,” he says of the city’s unhoused population as they prepare for the coming season. “You have to shake the trees if you want to get stuff and unfortunately, the trees that exist out there to shake are still under-resourced and underfunded.” He says keeping up with the demand for support right now is impossible. There are simply too many people living outside for everyone to get the help they need.
“I literally meet someone every day right now who's just started living outside, and it's their first time ever doing so and they're terrified,” Doucet says. Many of those who are newly unhoused are young people who have been renovicted right onto the street and don’t know how to camp in the winter. He gets calls every day from people who are about to be in the same situation. “I've never seen rents like this. I've never seen so many tent encampments,” he says, adding a reminder that encampments are a last resort. “When there might have been other options for people before, those options don't exist and the shelters are full. So we're gonna see more and more.”
Doucet says “homelessness is a full time job,” and when it gets cold, survival is even more mentally and physically taxing. He asks readers to imagine having to insulate an outdoor living space: putting up tarps, taping up holes, wrapping things in blankets, setting up a smaller tent inside a larger one, and then having to reinforce the entire thing every day or two—all while the temperature is below zero. “Like if people can just imagine that. If that was their life, what they would need, that is real for people. It's happening right now.”
“People are just sort of being left behind in the throes of this unbelievable situation that we're in at this point in history, and it's terrifying and it's sad,” says Doucet. “People are incredibly innovative and wise and all that, but at a certain point, what can you do to combat winter?”
Slen says “people's lives will be lost if we don't have solutions to get people inside, and we're working on solutions, community partners and government, we're all working together to figure out what that is, but I fear that we will lose many more lives than we already have if something isn't done.”
So what is being done this winter? Right now, OTC doesn’t have the space or the funding to increase capacity, but the organization has hired an additional street outreach worker. The Hub drop-in centre is looking to extend its hours and expand to a bigger facility. There are a number of supportive housing facilities slated to open in the coming months, such as The Overlook, a converted former Travelodge in Dartmouth.
In an email to The Coast, a spokesperson from the provincial Department of Community Services writes that $17 million will go towards “issues surrounding homelessness” in the 2022-23 budget, and that the province will be announcing “more initiatives” in the coming weeks.
On Nov. 24, the province announced that a new 20-bed emergency overnight shelter will open on Dundas Street in Dartmouth in December, on top of the existing 40-bed one on North Park Street that opened in October.
Earlier this week, The Coast asked HRM what the city will be doing differently this winter to address the growing unhoused population. We were told a response is on the way, but we have not received it in time for publication. We will update this story when we hear back.
As Slen points out, “Shelters are not the solution to the housing crisis,” and there are myriad reasons why some people choose not to stay in shelters or are not able to. “We can ask for more shelters or more shelter beds or more indoor warming centers, etc., etc., and those are all great as an emergency band aid solution, but what we need is the long-term solution of affordable housing,” says OTC’s Stein.
Doucet says encampments aren’t going anywhere until more rent-geared-to-income housing is built. “There's going to have to be something that switches over in the allocation of reasonable housing options for people who are being the most affected by the housing crisis. And we're sort of waiting, but waiting at this point is ridiculous. We need neighbours to speak up.”
What should you do to help your unhoused neighbours? Doucet urges the public to write to their city councillors: “Let them know that they stand with encampment residents and they desire rent-geared-to-income housing, and they desire housing options for the wider public that is just more reasonable in a housing crisis like Halifax has never seen before.”
Slen says empathy can go a long way, and people should make an effort to destigmatize our most vulnerable. “If you are somebody who knows the barriers that exist and why people might experience homelessness, challenge people who are, you know, making stereotypical comments about homelessness.” Even some simple human connection, saying hi, can mean a lot, she says.
And of course, you should donate. Slen says if you see someone outside a tent, get them a hot meal and give them some money or a pair of socks. Doucet has a list of items the local organizations “immediately” need: Tents, sleeping bags, hand warmers, hats, socks, snow pants, winter coats, gloves, scarves, boots, sleeping mats.
“The people I know outside are like beautiful, lovely, witty, talented and gorgeous individuals. And it's shocking to me that profit or, you know, just market value for property has completely consumed the sort of approach that could mirror something based on human rights,” Doucet says. “We don't have anything empathetic really built into the framework of housing and property, and at this point we need to or we're going to see this more and more.”