A deal between the provincial government and an organization that runs some of Halifax’s homeless shelters could end up endangering the lives of homeless people this winter, front-line workers say.
In October, minister of community services Judy Streatch announced that Pendleton Place would not re-open this winter due to an agreement her department made with the Saint Leonard’s Society of Nova Scotia, Pendleton’s parent organization.
Pendleton was a seasonal co-ed shelter on Brunswick Street with a harm reduction mandate targeting the hardest-to-house homeless: those under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or those with severe mental disorders, as well as others who are banned or don’t fit at the other shelters.The province is re-directing Pendleton funding into more bed space at other St. Leonard’s shelters---Metro Turning Point Centre for men on Barrington Street, and Barry House for women, on Wellington Street.
In October, St. Leonard’s director Jerry Smyth said the existing shelters would be able to manage the demand for winter shelter, and that the same harm reduction services Pendleton provided would now be in place at Turning Point and at Barry House.“No one will be turned away,” he said.
But this month two people have already fallen through the cracks in the new system.
A male-to-female transgendered person was turned away from the women’s shelters, and was unwilling to stay at the men’s facilities. And, a man with a mental health condition was banned from Turning Point after threatening a female staff member. He has already been banned from the zero-tolerance Salvation Army men’s shelter on Gottingen Street. Both people were on the street Nov. 19, and are now temporarily staying in motels.
The community workers who know them say they are in extremely precarious situations.
The shelters’ actions “are vicious,” says Paul O’Hara, a social worker at the North End Community Clinic. “They are placing people in very precarious circumstances.” O’Hara fears someone might die before the warnings from the community are heeded. It’s hard to know how many people are negatively impacted by the shelter changes, says Kathy Bourgeois, a staff member at Adsum House for women. Before the provincial deal, Barry House was a zero-tolerance shelter. To maintain a safe space for women with children, or women recovering from addictions, Barry House staff would turn away women under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or anyone they thought could be a threat to their current residents.
But women who used Pendleton were not always “dry,” and when Pendleton bed space shifted to Barry House, Barry stopped being a zero-tolerance shelter, overnight.
Adsum has been using the harm reduction philosophy since 2000. Bourgeois says it took Adsum staff and clients a lot of work to adapt to the harm reduction model. Eight years later, they still struggle to get it right.“The idea of going from zero tolerance one day, to harm reduction the next just seems impossible. I don’t know how Barry House is going to do it,” she says.
Concerned service providers have formed a group to come up with a plan for a new emergency harm reduction shelter, but their time is running out as the nights get colder.
O’Hara says an as-yet unnamed organization has agreed to run the facility, but they still need to find a space and the new shelter will need provincial funding. He endorses protest as a way to put pressure on the provincial government to provide funding. “The only reason we got Pendleton Place was the direct action of the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, who went to city hall and turned the city council meeting upside down.”
November 3, the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty stormed the DCS building on Gottingen Street and stayed until police forced them to leave. Two weeks later, 150 people marched to the legislature to demand a variety of solutions to poverty, including an emergency winter shelter. O’Hara hopes the pressure builds up enough to force government’s hand.
“It will be on the department of community services, and indirectly on St. Leonard’s society, if someone dies on the streets this winter,” O’Hara says.