In the two weeks since the July 17 deadline to vacate Meagher Park, AKA People’s Park, the city has grown tired of the civilian-led response. Now a police eviction of residents at the park appears inevitable after a special regional council meeting on Tuesday, August 2.
When council interrupted its summer break for a virtual meeting regarding homlessness in the city, councillors were told by CAO Jaques Dubé that they wouldn’t be making any decisions. Instead, he’d be giving an update on “the current situation, expected next steps and potential implications,” and council would be able to ask staff questions.
The current situation was laid out in a presentation by special projects manager Max Chauvin, who said residents of People’s Park, some of whom are new and some of whom recently returned, are no longer willing to relocate. He said neighbours “have listened to people being beaten” and that there are “escalating health and safety concerns” such as rats, needles, and bodily fluids. He also acknowledged what makes People’s Park attractive, including the sense of community, people bringing food and supplies, the central location, and public visibility.
Chauvin said People’s Park doesn’t meet the city’s criteria for a suitable tenting location because it’s close to a playground, daycare and a school. (Note that one of the city’s four designated encampments, Lower Flinn Park, is also next to a playground.)
As another reason to close the park to houseless people, Chauvin also cited “increasing conflict between the advocacy groups” that operate in the park, including Halifax Mutual Aid; Permanent, Accessible, Dignified and Safer Housing (PADS); and strangely, Nova Scotians United and the Freedom Convoy. He said there have been reports of protesters saying racial and homophobic slurs, and that they’re making both residents and service providers feel unsafe.
Deputy mayor Pamela Lovelace said she is concerned residents of the park are becoming “pawns” in a clash of advocacy groups, which seems to be a common belief among councillors. “I'm not going to be very popular on social media for saying this, but let's face it, folks. These agents who are suggesting to us, and suggesting every day on the Twitterverse and every day in the public that they're championing for these folks who are homeless, they are there for their own agenda,” said councillor Becky Kent.
Councillor Lisa Blackburn agreed. “Involvement by activist groups who simply don't give a hoot about our unhoused neighbours has changed the water on the beans for me,” she said. “We now have groups involved who have their agendas, and only a desire to advance those agendas. Activist groups on opposite sides of the spectrum, each fighting for their rights to occupy the park. Well enough, the park is closed. The conditions there are abysmal. We are one heavy rainstorm away from a cholera outbreak as far as I'm concerned.”
Because residents aren’t leaving voluntarily and there are protesters present, Maggie MacDonald, executive director of Parks and Recreation, said the next step is to ask the Halifax Regional Police “for assistance in vacating the park.” Dubè said the city’s efforts to get people to leave aren’t working anymore and he suspects that the call is “imminent.”
The way this will go down is that MacDonald must make the request for HRP enforcement, and then chief Dan Kinsella will make an operation plan. Kinsella didn’t give any details of a plan, because the call hasn’t been made yet, but said HRP will take a “measured approach.”
“The municipality now is at a point where they are considering exercising an option to call the HRP for assistance. and as you can appreciate, this decision will change the approach from non-enforcement-lead to enforcement-lead, if in fact we are called to assist,” Kinsella said. He added that if required, police forces across the province including the RCMP, Cape Breton Regional Police Service and Truro Police Service would be willing to help out.
Councillors are now bracing for a repeat of last August’s eviction catastrophe. “I’m feeling awfully nervous about this,” said councillor Cathy Deagle-Gammon. Councillor Tim Outhit asked for confirmation that the five residents at People’s Park had somewhere to go, as last year that’s what councillors were told but it ended up not being the case. MacDonald said the priority is to get people into hotels or other options like the modular units, but if it’s not possible the city will make sure there’s space in the designated tenting locations. Councillor Lindell Smith voiced concern that people will simply move to other parks and the People’s Park situation will replicate elsewhere. MacDonald again said that the strategy is to encourage people to move into the designated spots.
There are currently between four and five people living in People’s Park. The Dartmouth modulars are full, and the Halifax modulars are half full. There are spaces available in three out of four of the designated encampment parks. It’s also been confirmed that there is transportation available for People’s Park residents.
Worries about a repeat of last year’s debacle aside, council largely agrees that police enforcement is necessary. “We have done as much as we possibly could within our mandate and within our authority,” Lovelace said. “We have to acknowledge the fact that voluntary compliance is out the window.”
“The facts are we now know that if we move into, which I believe we have to, resolving this situation at this particular park with police engagement, it's not going to be pretty,” Kent said, “We have to do it. What's that going to look like, I trust in chief Kinsella.”
“We can't be mistaken this time,” said mayor Mike Savage. “People have to at least have an opportunity to go to a better place outside, in the places that we've designated.”