Activists build a crisis shelter as Halifax stays silent about modular housing plans | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Many hands made for light work as the roof was put on the new shelter at Cogswell Park.

Activists build a crisis shelter as Halifax stays silent about modular housing plans

The municipal government has gone nearly six weeks without an update on 73 housing units, while Halifax Mutual Aid builds a shelter in under two hours.

Tuesday at its regular biweekly meeting, Halifax Regional Council is supposed to receive a long-awaited update on the city’s plan to deploy modular housing units, which were announced in late September as a way to create shelter for dozens of unhoused Haligonians.

The update could be related to council agenda item 15.1.7, Options for Increased Municipal Support and Partnerships for Provincial Housing Program Delivery, although that report stems from a 2018 council request and only mentions modular housing once, in a list of 20 “Affordable Housing Tools.” More likely the update is connected to the mysterious agenda item 15.1.9, only described as “Emergency Accommodations Funding Request.”

Since announcing the modular housing on September 29, the city has been conspicuously quiet about them. There are set to be 73 units in total, in 24 separate buildings, to house people who are currently living either on the streets, at People’s Park or in temporary shelters like the converted Gray Arena.

But nearly six weeks later there are numerous questions that the city hasn’t answered, and the public knows almost nothing about the units themselves. The main question at this point has been when the units will be ready for move-in.

“I feel like the finish line for that keeps changing,” says Michelle Malette, executive director of Out of The Cold. “I know that it’s taking a long time. I understood that it was because of the big water project.” Between the Cole Harbour Road Culvert Replacement and upgrades to the Lake Major Water Supply Plant, Malette says “Halifax Water was not going to be able to proceed with some of the work” to get the modular units habitable.

The other question is where the units will go, and while there’s rumours, there have been no official announcements. “I don’t think it’s been a secret that they’ve been saying Alderney,” says Malette of the Dartmouth location, but she hasn’t heard anything about the Halifax site.

“I would love to hear some dates and some timelines,” says Malette. “It’s really worrisome that people are outside, it’s cold. And the arena obviously is not ideal for folks.”

While questions about when and where take centre stage, Halifax Regional Municipality has managed to avoid answering other questions about the modular units. What state are they in? What repairs need to be made before they can be move-in ready? Why could the city buy the units for only $10,000 apiece, when market rates run 10 times that?

The Coast asked the city for answers, but HRM staff refused to comment, saying that section 474 of the Municipal Government Act prevents an item on council’s agenda from being discussed before the meeting: “It is not our practice to disclose information prior to it being provided to Regional Council.”

In the meantime, Halifax Mutual Aid is assuming the worst—that the modular units will never arrive. It’s a realistic assessment given the city’s glaring silence on the subject, and it already compelled the anonymous group of housing activists to action. On Saturday, volunteers built a crisis shelter at Cogswell Park, HMA’s first crisis shelter on public land in months.

click to enlarge Activists build a crisis shelter as Halifax stays silent about modular housing plans
The Coast
Halifax Mutual Aid volunteers built this crisis shelter at Cogswell Park in less than two hours.

The city’s decision to remove HMA shelters during the summer lead to the shelter siege, a violent police action against protesters at the former Halifax Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road. Saturday morning, police were on site at Cogswell Park around 10am, before a UHaul truck with construction supplies was unloaded.

Lead officer Gilles Boudreau warned HMA volunteers and supporters of the park residents they were in violation of “municipal parks bylaws,” but the people were undeterred. Once construction on the unit started, Boudreau and four accompanying officers didn’t interfere.

“Police are definitely keeping an eye on any instance in which the community is trying to support its most vulnerable neighbors to have a little bit more safety,” says Campbell McClintock, spokesperson for Halifax Mutual Aid. “We’ve known for a while that this is not the most needed use of resources right now.”

“If I ignored the people I was supposed to protect at my job, I would be fired. I wouldn’t have a job,” one supporter told an officer clad in jeans and a bulletproof vest, as the supporter filmed the cop. Supporters repeatedly asked for badge numbers, names and identification to prevent a repetition of the incidents on August 18.

“I feel pretty good about that,” one volunteer called to the others as the roof slid onto the small building, about an hour and a half after the group first started. While it’s not a solution to the housing crisis, HMA hopes the tiny shelter will at least keep someone warmer than a tent.

“While the city is doing a lot of work, showing what projects apparently they have for houseless people, they're not actually fulfilling those projects,” McClintock says. “The number one rule in supporting people who are vulnerable is, you don't promise more than you can give.”

After Tuesday’s council meeting, the public will hopefully know a bit more about what HRM’s plans are for the modular units. But it’s clear the city is running into more barriers than expected, and is also running out of time to fulfill its promise to house people before winter.

Victoria Walton

Victoria was a full-time reporter with The Coast from April 2020 until mid-2022, when the CBC lured her away. During her Coast tenure, she 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...
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