Nova Scotia

New emergency shelter in Dartmouth at capacity every night

For the first few nights since opening its doors in May, the 15 beds at Frank MacKay House were empty. But once word got out about the emergency shelter, calls started coming in and it’s been full ever since.

'We're stretched very thin,' says Dartmouth Shelter Society board member Warren Wesson

Volunteers are shown at Frank MacKay House. The beds and partitions are set aside during the day so Sonlife Community Church can use the space. (Submitted by Warren Wesson)

For the first few nights after opening its doors in May, the 15 beds at Frank MacKay House were empty. But once word got out about the emergency shelter, calls started coming in and it's been full ever since.

"We turn away more people than we can take," said Warren Wesson, a full-time volunteer at Frank MacKay House and board member of the Dartmouth Shelter Society.

The shelter, in the Sonlife Community Church on Windmill Road, operates from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. and welcomes guests on a first-come, first-served basis.

Wesson said of the 15 beds, he keeps five "crisis beds" available for guests brought in by emergency service providers like the police.

People are being pushed to the shelter for lots of different reasons and it's not always because of long-term need, Wesson said.

"I've had to change diapers on 70-year old men since I opened this [shelter]," he said. "People that should be kept in the hospital are being released, wandering across the Commons, passed out, being picked up by the police and brought to me. That's real."

Kitchen volunteers preparing snacks and sandwiches for overnight guests at Frank MacKay House. (Submitted by Warren Wesson)

Wesson said about a quarter of the people who have stayed at the shelter have jobs, but can't make rent or get their credit approved to secure an apartment, and many come from other shelters in the city.

Frank MacKay House is the only adult co-ed shelter in the Halifax region, and Wesson said the volunteers work to ensure there are no issues between the men and women. There have been no incidents so far, he said.

"All our guests are informed when they come in that we are friends, and whatever they need to talk to us about, we're there for them," he said.

More volunteers needed

Since welcoming their first guest three weeks ago, Wesson said volunteers have made more than 500 meals.

"We're stretched very thin," Wesson said. "We put a lot of hard work in, we're sweating every day, we make sure everybody gets what they need."

Community members and local businesses have also come through with grocery and clothing donations, and sometimes a full home-cooked meal.

Beds at Frank MacKay House are separated with wooden partitions to give overnight guests privacy. (Submitted by Warren Wesson)

"It's really quite incredible, the amount of time and talent that people are donating within the community," said Colin McCrae, a volunteer and board member, who along with Wesson was instrumental in bringing the emergency shelter to Dartmouth.

McCrae said between the volunteers and community donations, it's impossible to say exactly how many people have contributed to the shelter's success, but it's been a massive community effort.

"We have to be so appreciative of the people of Dartmouth," McCrae said. "They've began to see the need that Dartmouth has and do something about it in every incremental way they can."

Many of the volunteers at the shelter are from Dartmouth. (Submitted by Warren Wesson)

Based on the amount of calls the shelter turns away every day, they need closer to 100 beds than the current 15, said Wesson.

"We're doing our best, but our best in my view simply isn't cutting it," Wesson said. "We need more, HRM needs more, and Nova Scotia needs more."

Though the shelter needs more beds and a bigger physical space, the Dartmouth Shelter Society isn't currently looking for a new location. Wesson said he feels lucky to have their current spot, and unless someone offers up something bigger they'll be staying put.