Nova Scotia

Halifax advocates say people living in parks still waiting for next steps

As of Monday, about 18 people were living in tents and wooden shelters in Meagher Park on Chebucto Road, which has also been dubbed the People's Park by those living and volunteering at the space.

Community group calls for immediate housing options, end to police evictions

Rachelle Sauvé is the Meagher Park site co-ordinator and member of P.A.D.S (Permanent, Accessible, Dignified, and Safer) Community Network. (CBC)

In a small park in Halifax's west end, there's coffee on hand, neighbours drop by with food, and flowers sit on the covered tables where people chat and gather out of the rain.

As of Monday, about 18 people were living in tents and wooden shelters in Meagher Park on Chebucto Road, which has been dubbed the People's Park by those living and volunteering at the space.

It's been nearly a month since Halifax city staff and police forced out people living illegally on municipal land, many of whom then spread out into other parks, like Meagher Park, if they had nowhere else to go.

"We were left in the lurch for a very, very long time and still are in this moment," said Rachelle Sauvé, site co-ordinator and member of P.A.D.S (Permanent, Accessible, Dignified, and Safer) Community Network, which operates the encampment.

"[We're] wondering who's taking responsibility to come down to the park directly, talk to the folks here and try to take some sort of next step."

There were about 18 people living at Meagher Park as of Monday. (CBC)

At the time of the Aug. 18 evictions, Mayor Mike Savage said everyone was offered other housing, like indefinite hotel stays.

But housing advocates and social workers have said there were not enough hotel rooms at the time, and they are also not suitable for many people since they don't come with mental health or addictions support.

While Sauvé said hotel stays are not ideal for the long term, they're better than living in a tent or wooden shelter, so P.A.D.S. is calling for the Halifax Regional Municipality to work with the province to get people a safer place to stay immediately. 

Two weeks ago, Halifax council approved two motions related to housing: one to allocate $500,000 to the creation of emergency housing, and one to devote federal rapid housing initiative funds to create 85 new affordable units.

But Sauvé said they haven't heard anything from the municipality about when people can move into that emergency housing, or when more hotel rooms might be available.

The community network is also asking HRM to stop police from evicting people from tents and shelters in the meantime, since long-term solutions like affordable housing options will take weeks and months to open.

"We have to remove that threat that's consistently actually aggravating people's mental illnesses, making people feel more uncomfortable and scared all the time," Sauvé said.

Sauvé said the number of people living in the park has fluctuated since six residents moved into hotel rooms a couple weeks ago. Numbers dipped to about four tents at one point to where things sit now with roughly 18 people. 

Their numbers have especially grown in the past week after police evicted smaller encampments and told them to head to Meagher Park, Sauvé said.

Signs made by the P.A.D.S. Community Network thank neighbors for donations and send a message to city councillors. (Nicola Seguin/CBC)

A recent report from Halifax's street outreach navigator estimated there were at least 81 people sleeping outside around the city as of Aug. 25.

Nineteen of those people had been either displaced or had their belongings confiscated when municipal staff and police cleared out the tents and shelters the week before. These people remained homeless and were not offered any alternative accommodations, the report said.

The constant worry about police arriving to tear down tents and shelters is one reason there is a 24/7 volunteer presence at the park, Sauvé said, which allows people to fully rest.

While many neighbours are supportive of the encampment, Sauvé said they do know of some in the area who are "deeply concerned." Anyone who has specific issues is invited to stop by the park to have a conversation and see how things can be resolved, Sauvé said.

The most common thing they hear from people walking by is that "tenting isn't the answer" — frustration Sauvé said should be directed toward HRM.

"It's time for the city to actually give public voice to what its plan is," Sauvé said. "We're hoping that we're not here in winter, and we're hoping that folks step up soon."

Sauvé says there have not been any physical fights at the park or loud noises late at night, while both park residents and volunteers keep things clean. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Municipal spokesperson Brynn Budden said in an email Tuesday that homeless encampments cannot remain indefinitely. 

The municipality is working with the province and community-based service providers to offer those experiencing homelessness support, "including a range of housing options and/or temporary accommodation," said Budden.

However, she could not confirm if all park occupants have been offered supports due to the transitory nature of people in the encampments.

Since Aug. 19, Budden said the municipality has received 24 complaints and five inquiries regarding Meagher Park through 311.

Protesters jostle with police at a protest after the city removed tents and small shelters for homeless people in Halifax on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

She said the city's chief administrative officer, Jacques Dubé, can make operational decisions on bylaws like the one banning shelters on municipal land, but it's up to police to decide how to enforce the bylaw.

She directed questions on which tents are taken down and why to Halifax Regional Police.

Const. John MacLeod, a spokesperson for the force, declined to say how police determine which shelters to remove and when.

He said police have gotten seven calls related to Meagher Park since Aug. 19. Charges were laid in two cases: one involved assault and resisting arrest, while the second included threats and breach of probation.

The other five calls were related to quality-of-life concerns, MacLeod said.

Dubé has said city staff are assessing municipal property and facilities that might be used as temporary housing.

Housing is a provincial responsibility, and the new PC government has said it will follow 17 recommendations from the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission, including spending $25 million on affordable housing programs.

That spending will include the construction of up to 900 affordable units within the next 18 months.