Nova Scotia

Halifax councillors weigh in on homeless encampment report

Halifax regional councillors have amended a controversial proposal on tent encampments and asked for more information from municipal staff.

Report did not pass as written, will be amended by municipal staff

A tent encampment at the corner of Chebucto Road and Dublin Street in Halifax is shown on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Halifax regional councillors have amended a controversial proposal on tent encampments and asked for more information from municipal staff.

Councillors debated the "homelessness and encampment approach" report for more than three hours during a meeting Tuesday, passing three amendments.

Coun. Waye Mason said he's not in favour of the recommendation that council direct the municipality's chief administrative officer to designate one-night camping sites on city land.

Mason moved to eliminate the recommendation. He asked instead that the locations be added to another list contemplated in the report, this one for spots that would allow longer-term camping.

"We want to take our time," Mason said. "We want to work with our partners, and we want to try and transition people to sites that can be properly provisioned and are safe."

Homeless encampments in the city have garnered increased attention in the last year, particularly one created in August at a small city park off Chebucto Road. A municipal bylaw currently says camping is prohibited in such parks, "unless otherwise posted or by permission."

Council also passed Mason's amendment asking for a timeline and details on how to best implement the plan on camping sites.

Deputy mayor Pam Lovelace's amendment asked for the CAO to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the province to define the roles of the province and the municipality in sheltering unhoused people in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Police involvement

Mason said council needs to be clear in its direction that police should not be involved in enforcement at camping sites, adding that council could instead bring in people with social work backgrounds.

"That's mostly what we're hearing from our community and from even my own colleagues," Mason said. "We're worried this is going to turn into another major action."

In August, Halifax police pepper-sprayed and arrested protesters trying stop the removal of two temporary wooden shelters installed at the old Spring Garden Road library site in the city's downtown.

But Coun. Paul Russell said Tuesday there are some times when police have to be involved. 

"We can't just say it should never be police," he said. 

Mixed reactions

Russell said he doesn't support the report, calling it a "Band-Aid" option. Russell said something needs to be done, but the proposal is not a good use of the municipality's resources. 

"We need to do those things that are in our mandate first," he said. 

Mason called the plan HRM's "least-worst option" to enable the municipality to better provide human-rights-based protections and services to people experiencing homelessness.

"Status quo is not an option with encampments in parks during this housing crisis," he said. "Municipalities are the first responders — we're the first on site."

Municipality's involvement in housing

Mayor Mike Savage said council has come a long way since he was first elected in 2012 when housing was not seen as a municipal issue.

"Some people don't like it," Savage said. "We have taken this on and I'm proud of that fact."

He said HRM's recent work on housing is probably an overreach on its mandate but that doesn't bother him.

"You cannot be the governors of a municipality and say 'housing is not my gig,'" he said. "It is the most important thing for human beings is having a roof over their head and a chance to achieve their potential."

A motion to pass the report did not pass as written. After Tuesday's amendments, staff will prepare a new report to be presented to council in the summer.

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