Political failure continues to cause homelessness | News | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Workers clean up a political failure on Grand Parade.

Political failure continues to cause homelessness

Everything you need to know about HRM council’s June 4 meeting

One of the single best sport tournaments in the world is the English Football Association Challenge Cup. The FA Cup is a domestic tournament to find out who the best team in England is. This year, as in most years, that title has gone to one of the teams in England's highest league, Manchester United. But what makes this tournament so incredible is that every single team registered with the English Football Association can participate. Imagine if in Canada, once a year, every single team registered with Hockey Canada—from your beer league team to the Toronto Maple Leafs—competed in a tournament to see who was the best team in Canada. That's what the FA Cup is.

What makes it so magical is the times when what was essentially a high level beer league team Marine AFC hosted Tottenham Hotspurs, a team that regularly competes at a very high level with the best teams in Europe in the Champions League.

But for fans of middling Championship teams (confusingly the Championship is second tier of English Football and is not the Pan-European tournament similarly named the Champions League), the FA Cup offers something different. Sometimes teams like Bristol City will go up against a team like Manchester United and advance to the semi-finals. Sometimes Bristol City will flame out of the tournament early after being beaten by a lower league side. The inconsistency is enough to drive a fan mad.

Council debates are often like the FA Cup—in the inconsistency, not the excitement—and Tuesday’s debate about homelessness was one of the more infuriatingly inconsistent debates at council. We'll get into the weeds of what the homelessness debate was about in the Notable Debates section below, but it's just as important to highlight council’s policy hypocrisy.

One of the main sticking points of the homelessness issue is that council is genuinely, jurisdictionally, pretty powerless to do anything about the main issue(s) causing homelessness. Very simplistically, the housing crisis will not abate until everyone has a home, and the province needs to invest massively in public housing if Tim Houston wants to end homelessness. Councillors are quick to point out that building out public housing is not in their jurisdiction, and they are correct when they make that argument. Councillor Tony Mancini was also correct when he expressed reservations about the city's plan to spend money to try and mitigate the provincial failure. He correctly pointed out that this money may only be a few million this year, but since the province is building modern-day tar paper shacks for seniors instead of housing, any money the city spends on mitigating homelessness is an open-ended expenditure thanks to premier Houston building tar paper shacks instead of affordable housing. He argued that the province needs to foot the bill because they’re the ones creating homelessness in the first place.

Truthfully, council is (finally) starting to do a pretty good job in the housing file within the limitations of their power. For example, while most of the criticisms of the Housing Accelerator Fund bylaw changes—the HAF b’ys? Just spitballin’—are to some degree valid; these changes are a massive change in the trajectory of Halifax. In spite of what you might have learned from watching Canadian political dramas like H2O or less popular American counterparts like The West Wing, power being exercised to do systemic reform in real life is painfully boring. With the the HAF b’ys and with Tuesday’s homelessness debate, councillors demonstrated they understand their power and how to use it. In this council is Bristol City’s Kori Smith scoring an injury-time winner to knock heavy favourites Manchester United out of the FA Cup.

click to enlarge Political failure continues to cause homelessness
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Bristol City's manager Lee Johnson's iconic celebration of Kory Smith's injury-time winner against Manchester United in the 2017 FA Cup

Like the FA cup, where highs of good games serve to contrast the lows of the bad, what makes council’s debate performance on Tuesday so infuriating is what past good debate performances highlight. When it’s provincial jurisdiction, councillors understand the long-term consequence of political decision-making, but when it’s municipal jurisdiction, they do not demonstrate the same level of competence. For example, at last week’s Women’s Advisory Committee, councillor Becky Kent told her fellow committee members that she and her fellow councillors kept the tax rate low, which was good. She was called out by another committee member who pointed out that property taxes account for about 71% of municipal revenue, so low taxes was really just starving social programs. Kent said that yes, there were tradeoffs, like no money for new playgrounds and parks. Since child care is still very gendered in Canada, not building parks predominantly impacts women. This is an example of one of the reasons why the United Nations found that austerity policies are worse for women than men. It’s also worth pointing out that people who own homes with yards have less of a need for parks than people who rent, which means this policy predominately benefits landowners at the expense of renters. Sometimes when this council complains about the long-term fiscal impacts of a decision after keeping taxes low, it’s like listening to someone who set their house on fire complaining about the heat. More often than not, this council is Bristol City flaming out of the FA Cup early after losing a game they really should have won.

Things that passed

The minutes of last meeting were not passed. The draft minutes from the HAF b’ys debate mischaracterized some of the speakers’ arguments. As meeting minutes serve as our official collective record of history it’s important they are accurate. The draft minutes from last meeting will be corrected and presented to council at a future meeting.

Two heritage hearings happened. One for 2552 Gottingen St. and the other for 5561 Cogswell St. These are both now heritage properties.

Councillor Mancini brought forward two information items. The first is the Board of Police Commissioners annual report, he brought this forward because he believes council should be more informed about the goings on of the Board of Police Commissioners. In recent years the BOPC has sent some questionable budgets to council. Combine that with the massive ongoing municipal efforts of police reform and council would benefit from regular updates about the state of the HRM’s police/public safety reforms. Regular updates to council about police stuff are likely to start in the near future.

The second information item was about the status of dangerous or unsightly orders. In case you’ve never really thought about dangerous or unsightly orders, this formal mechanism is one by which people can use the state's power to bully their neighbours for having ugly lawns. But sometimes, it’s because the property is actually dangerous. There’s a lot of nuance to this bylaw, and the city doesn’t really have a good legislative framework for it. Mancini wanted to hear his fellow councillors’ thoughts about the HRM’s bylaws about this because he’s working on a bylaw. He’s expecting to bring it back to council’s next meeting.

The city is looking to give some land back to the residents of Beechville, but there are a lot of bureaucratic processes in this city. As a result, the Beechville Community Development Association is asking for a bit more time to put their proposal together. This extension was approved on the consent agenda.

The city needs to build better infrastructure. However, because of the infrastructure we built, the city is not in a fiscal position to do so. Therefore, the council wants a memorandum of understanding to give the CAO permission to apply to the Canada Infrastructure Bank for funding as projects become eligible for federal funding. The CAO is now empowered to go negotiate infrastructure funding. Nothing she negotiates will be spent without council’s approval.

Here’s a fund fact (pun intended): I once wrote a briefing note on creating a functional provincial infrastructure bank. Word on the street is that it made it to the desk of our current finance minister, Allan MacMaster.

The city is taking seriously the work of police reform and is changing some of the policy pillars of policing. There have now been a few studies and reports about how dangerous being a woman is due to the fact that women have to live and work with their only natural predator a.k.a. men. As a result, the city is trying to align this reality with their policing policies as recommended by things like the Mass Casualty Commission. This will also involve writing a letter to the province as the city will need a provincial assist for some legislative changes. This passed.

The city and Halifax Water are entering into a cost-sharing agreement for the area of Port Wallace.

The city is increasing the grants that rural transit operators get. This is sorely needed.

A huge motion about homelessness was up for debate, which aims to do three main things:

1) Write a letter to the province outlining exactly what the city needs the province to do, mainly build affordable housing and fund emergency housing, like tar paper shacks.

2) Stand up a civilian response force for issues that aren’t emergencies and that don’t need police.

3) Create some domestic refugee camps for the refugees of capitalism and political failure.

This mitigation of ongoing political failures in the housing file would have cost the city about $4 million, which is roughly equivalent to four kilometres of road paving. However, this was debated and amended extensively, and it is covered in greater detail in the notable debate section below.

The council will start carrying out its ball diamond plan as approved by the Community Planning and Economic Development standing committee. This passed on consent.

The city’s emergency management plans are a bit of a hot mess. The city is really good at responding to emergencies, but right now, that’s just because of the very good work individuals are doing in the HRM. If the city wants to be as good at responding to emergencies when these people retire, we need better (read coherent and functional) planning documents. Since we don’t have that right now, the council was considering this motion to start making sure Halifax has good emergency plans in place. Because the homelessness debate took up so much time, this debate was deferred.

The Youth Advisory Committee developed a solid communications strategy for By-law M-200, the anti-slumlord bylaw. The Coast’s Brendyn Creamer wrote an explainer of the bylaw for those who need it. This got approved by the Executive Committee last week and approved by council on consent.

After being approved by the Grants committee, the HRM pulled an Oprah and gave out less-than-market value leases on the consent agenda. Sackville Rivers Association, you get a lease! Sackville Seniors Advisory Council, you get a lease! Early Child Interventionists, you get a lease! Boys and Girls Clubs of the HRM, you get a lease! And they gave out some grants like the special events grants (think Canada day or Eid) and some community grants. All of these grants are worth about $5 million, or about five kilometres of road paving.

The Lake District Recreation Association wants the city to help keep the Sackville Community Arena open by entering into a service agreement with the city to the tune of about $100,000 a year indexed to inflation. You can’t even pave one kilometre of road for that amount of money, but it could save a local arena. This will get a staff report.

Councillor Lindell Smith is coming to the next meeting with a motion for a two-year micro-mobility pilot. Bike share? 👀

Councillor Patty Cuttell is coming to the next meeting with a motion to manage the vegetation on trails.

Deputy Mayor Cathy Deagle Gammon is coming to the next meeting with an administrative order to establish a corporate asset management policy for infrastructure. This could be huge.

They did a bunch of in-camera stuff, too.

Notable Debates

When we’re talking about the housing crisis and the homelessness resulting from objectively terrible political leadership, it’s important to understand exactly what we’re talking about.

When there are not enough homes, when working people don’t have enough money, when corporations run amok, the result of those policy choices is homelessness. Until premier Houston writes labour laws that benefit workers or builds affordable housing, we will have an increasing number of people experiencing homelessness for the foreseeable future. Since most of the people without homes still exist, they have to exist somewhere. And ever since we stole it from the Mi’kmaq, land in Halifax has been owned and privatized. The end result of that choice is that the only place people with no money can exist for free is in public space, a.k.a. city-owned land. So even though homelessness (except for exclusionary zoning) is a provincial and federal political problem, it is a practical problem for the city of Halifax. What does the city do with all of these people on city land? There are three options, let homelessness evolve organically, manage its growth, or say no to encampments.

There is a practical problem with that last option due to some decisions from the judicial branch of our government. Thanks to some “leaders” in BC who forgot how to be human for a bit, we now legally know what is intuitively morally obvious: it is unconstitutional to evict people from tents if there’s nowhere for them to go. Since we don’t have enough emergency beds, shelter beds or housing it is extremely unlikely the city will be in a legal position to evict people anytime soon.

Thinking the implications of this through led councillor Paul Russell to ask about the no encampment option. Specifically, if that was official HRM policy would that mean that people would be kept in hospitals or jails if they have nowhere to go and there are no official encampments? Russell told the story of one of his constituents who received a stage four cancer diagnosis and was then discharged back to their tent. If encampments weren’t allowed, surely the hospital would have been forced to keep this person? Nope. As it turns out, it’s even worse than that. Director of housing and homelessness Max Chauvin told Russell that his example was one of the better outcomes. If someone is discharged from a hospital with a cancer diagnosis with nothing, the hospital calls the city and asks for a tent.

Pardon my language, but WHAT. THE. FUCK. ARE. WE. DOING!? We are the most heavily taxed province in the country and we are absolutely sure this is the best we can do?

So anyways, council decided to create some refugee camps for $1.8 million for the people seeking asylum from the oppression of capitalism. These camps will be on Bancroft Drive and Marketplace Drive. They also approved giving $750,000 to Shelter Nova Scotia.

At some point in the future councillors are likely to create a civilian response force to help our fellow humans who don’t have enough even though they are living in the era of humanity’s gluttonous abundance. As an administrative note, this civilian response is different than the one planned for the Department of Public Safety. The public safety team are the folks who would turn up if you called 911. These folks would be the ones who turn up if you call 311. Similar, but different and complementary. But of course that costs money so first council is doing some politics. They decided to wait on funding the civilian response force so they can send a letter to the province asking premier Houston to be a decent human being and fund the clean up of the provincial mess.

Matt Stickland

Matt spent 10 years in the Navy where he deployed to Libya with HMCS Charlottetown and then became a submariner until ‘retiring’ in 2018. In 2019 he completed his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College. Matt is an almost award winning opinion writer.
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