Today marks 100 days since Halifax police and city employees were ordered by staff to take down crisis shelters and tents at the old library grounds. Between the August 18 shelter siege and now, November 26, the city has promised hotel beds (revoked), modular units (delayed), and temporary shelters (not enough). While the optics of the situation have become increasingly worse for whoever is running HRM and city hall, here’s a progress update on how the housing file is going.
Last Thursday, Nov 18, at the three-month mark since the siege, there was a statement from P.A.D.S. (which stands for Permanent, Accessible, Dignified, Safe Housing), the group that started the community at People’s Park.
“The brutality unleashed by the HRM and its police was the inception point for the creation of larger homelessness encampments,” says the open letter. “As people gathered in numbers and in places where they might find solidarity in defense of their right to shelter for survival and support in ensuring that they would not face future policing interventions and HRM evictions alone.“
The letter calls on HRM to do four things: drop the charges on the 24 protesters arrested during the siege; issue a public apology for the mismanagement of the situation; open a public inquiry into the decision-making process; and stop using police in response to the housing crisis.
Halifax Regional Council and city hall have been silent since FOI documents revealing internal communications leading up to August 18 have been released. Meanwhile, grassroots organizations are still slowly trying to mitigate the crisis.
“It doesn’t change what HMA is doing because HMA’s focus is building shelters and giving them to people who need them,” says Campbell McClintock, a spokesperson for Halifax Mutual Aid, the largely anonymous organization that builds small crisis shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness.
McClintock says it was “not surprising at all” when he and other advocates learned about the city’s backroom discussions, including an email that claimed Mutual Aid wouldn’t communicate with the city.
“We’ve known from the very beginning of building these crisis shelters that the city was going to strategize their response to them in a way that makes them look good, compassionate and like they’re doing the supportive work to house people that they should be doing,” says McClintock. “But we know that the public-facing image is not necessarily what’s going on behind closed doors.”
Halifax Mutual Aid says it’s still willing to have discussions with HRM about the crisis shelters and working together, despite what the city has said. “There's no circumstance in which HMA would meet with any politicians behind closed doors. That's dangerous, because there's no accountability,” McClintock says. “However, there is the opportunity for there to be public discussions in public platforms at any time.”
As promised, Halifax did release a “municipal update” last week about the modular units promised as shelter for houseless people. It came out on November 16 and wasn’t issued as an official press release but only on the municipality’s social media channels.
“A recommendation is expected to be presented to the CAO the week of Nov. 15,” reads that update. “Following approval, a purchase order will be issued for modular units.”
This comes after the last purchase order for modular units fell through after the city realized they were full of mold and not “suitable for the municipality’s use.”
Mutual Aid takes issue with some of the contents of the city’s updates, including the insinuation that HMA’s crisis shelters are “a fire hazard and are unsafe.” Mutual Aid has previously stated that the fatality reported in Bayer’s Lake in a box shelter fire earlier this year was not a unit constructed by HMA.
“There’s no credibility to the city’s claims whatsoever, and the documents that they recently published contain false claims about what transpired with those fires,” says McClintock. “And the shelters that HMA builds are entirely up to code for any regular home in the HRM, except for the plumbing and electricity.” (The crisis shelters don’t have power or water.)
City councillors were updated again this Tuesday at council, but the report again contained no new information. An update this week from HRM says the Dartmouth modular units are expected by Dec 20.
In the meantime, councillor Sam Austin, who represents the downtown area where the Dartmouth modular units will be placed, says he’s heard no updates other than what’s been shared publicly.
“They’re going for Alderney so of course I’ve been hearing from some homeowners who are not pleased about the modulars coming to the neighbourhood,” Austin says in a phone call with The Coast. “And there are some legitimate concerns that come with these sorts of facilities so I don’t want to demonize anyone for going what’s about to happen in my neighbourhood?”
But Austin says at this point, he’s telling his constituents that the modular units are coming to the neighbourhood, and it’s not up for debate. He’ll host a community meeting this coming Monday evening to further advise residents.
“The meeting that I’m organizing is not a meeting for people to go should we be doing this here or should we not?” he says. “That decision is made. To me it’s an information meeting that folks can ask questions and we can take away concerns to hopefully make the place run better.”
The Dartmouth councillor also says the province is still largely responsible for housing, something the city has said repeatedly since the beginning. “A lot of where things have gone awry is because HRM relied on assurances,” Austin explains.
“We’re not the service providers, so you have to rely on community services and the province for some stuff, and if things are quite not as you believe them to be… I wasn’t in on the conversations so I can’t go so far as to say who let who down, but something obviously did not work there.”
But when The Coast asked the province if the modular units could be discussed during cabinet last week, provincial housing minister John Lohr’s office said, “This is best directed to HRM communications and media relations.”
After the cabinet meeting, minister of community services Karla McFarlane did speak to the housing issue as a whole, saying “we will continue working with HRM and everyone to tap into those resources that we’re all putting forward to ensure that no one is sleeping outside.”
McFarlane spoke of $10 million and $4.2 million initiatives supported by the province, and said the province was working with the city to keep things moving, but couldn’t give specifics even when directly asked how many beds had been provided thus far.
“We will continue working extremely hard with all service providers,” McFarlane said. “And are happy to again work with Out of the Cold who will be providing the wrap-around services when HRM is ready with their modular units.”
Their modular units.
What can we take from all this? In summary, the province blames the city, the city blames the province, council blames staff, staff blame council, and service providers are trying to ensure people don’t literally freeze to death.