Nova Scotia

Neighbours air concerns about new shelter in Dartmouth

Residents of the area surrounding Sonlife Community Church in Dartmouth, N.S., are airing grievances about how a new shelter is affecting the neighbourhood.

'There's a lot of people in the neighbourhood that are unhappy with the situation,' says area resident

Christian Hiriart looks at a bench in Victoria Park. Overflow guests of the neighbourhood shelter often sleep there. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

Residents of the area surrounding Sonlife Community Church in Dartmouth, N.S., are airing grievances about how a new shelter is affecting the neighbourhood.

Christian Hiriart, who has lived in the area for 13 years, said since Frank MacKay House opened a few weeks ago, area residents have seen homeless people sleeping on benches, camping out in bushes and defecating in Victoria Park.

The church and the Dartmouth Shelter Society combined to create the shelter.

"There's a lot of people in the neighbourhood that are unhappy with the situation," Hiriart said.

He and his family live a block away from the shelter, directly across from the park. Over the weekend, Hiriart said a man spent the night on a park bench and left plastic wrappers and human feces all around it.

The park down the street from the shelter has a community garden, a playground and soccer field. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

Hiriart informed the shelter of the incident.

He said a volunteer was quick to clean up the mess, but told him they were bringing overflow guests there because they couldn't let them loiter in front of the church, due to complaints from the neighbours.

"The message they gave me was, 'Get used to it,'" he said.

'Family-oriented neighbourhood'

During the daytime, when Frank MacKay House is closed, the church is used as a daycare.

There have been some concerns expressed about loitering on the property as shelter guests arrive ahead of the 9 p.m. opening.

"It's a very family-oriented neighbourhood, and it's come a long way," Hiriart said. "Now we're having to explain to kids why there's people flopped out sleeping in bushes, using the park as a restroom, and things like that."

Barbara Yorke and Richard Blevins were awoken at 7 a.m. by yelling in the streets. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

Barbara Yorke has lived in the neighbourhood since the 1980s. She said it's changed a lot since she first moved in 30 years ago.

"Lots of young people moving in with children, lots of pedigree dogs and designer strollers," Yorke said. "It's become quite a nice place to live."

Shelter quick to respond to complaints

Yorke and her husband, Richard Blevins, said they were awoken shortly after 7 a.m. by a man and woman shouting obscenities on the street.

"That's very unusual for this neighbourhood," she said.

A block away from the church is a thicket where some of the overflow guests are thought to camp out. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

Yorke said she contacted Warren Wesson, who helps run the shelter, and he responded immediately, saying the two individuals would be reprimanded for violating shelter policy.

"I think they've been really good about responding to some of our concerns, like this morning," Blevins said. "I think they're very sincere about what they're doing."

Yorke and Blevins said they're still willing to give the shelter the benefit of the doubt.

"They need shelter. As long as they behave themselves, I'm all for it," said Blevins.

Finding a solution

Hiriart said he'd like to see the shelter develop a strategy for dealing with the overflow, and to engage the community on how they can move forward.

A sign posted to the door of Frank MacKay House asks guest to arrive after 9 p.m. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

"We should all be together on this, really," he said. "Because it is a needed service and it should be there. But they can't have it running the way it is now. It cannot exist at the expense of the community."

Wesson said the shelter has developed a strategy with the Halifax Regional Police and are working to address issues as they happen.

"We're learning as we go," Wesson said. "But we endeavour to maintain very close contact with all of the neighbours. Every single person in that neighbourhood is encouraged to call me directly, or the police."

Wesson grew up in the neighbourhood and has grandchildren of his own, so he understands that residents have concerns about safety, he said.

"That's not lost on me," Wesson said. "That's top priority. If somebody's going to be using that shelter to be a menace to society, that's not going to happen."

'It's not an easy situation'

Coun. Sam Austin, who represents the area, said he's received complaints from three neighbours so far. "It's not an easy situation," he said.

Austin said he can't ban someone from using a park just because they're homeless, because the park is public.

He has been in touch with the shelter's organizers and is keeping in close contact with community response officers with HRP.

"My hope is that the shelter and the community can co-exist," Austin said.