Nova Scotia

With fewer beds for Halifax homeless, advocates turn eye to permanent housing

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way emergency shelters operate, maybe permanently, and some operators say it’s for the better.

Shelters lost beds due to COVID-19 but demand for safe spaces remains with winter approaching

The Metro Turning Point shelter had room for 55 men packed tightly into bunk beds before COVID-19. Now it can take 30. (CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic has slashed the number of beds at emergency shelters in Halifax, improving operations in some ways but creating pressure for the winter ahead.

Soon after the arrival of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, shelters reduced their capacity to allow for physical distancing according to public health guidelines.

Shelter Nova Scotia's two emergency shelters in Halifax came through the first wave of the pandemic with almost 40 per cent fewer beds. The women's shelter, Barry House, was left with 17 beds, down from 20. Metro Turning Point, a shelter for men, dropped to 30 beds from 55. 

At the same time, advocates have been noticing more people sleeping rough — meaning outdoors in public spaces. 

"It's so easy for people to immediately think less beds clearly is why there's more people on the streets," said Jayme Butt, a spokesperson for Shelter Nova Scotia.

"It's just so much bigger than that."

Butt said the solution is not more shelter beds and Shelter Nova Scotia has no plans to go back to its former capacity. In fact, existing spaces have been renovated to keep numbers low. 

The new mission, said Butt, is to get people into permanent housing. With fewer beds in the shelters, she said the ratio of staff to guests is now "appropriate," and allows housing support workers and social workers to do their jobs better.

"We're putting all of our concentration now into affordable housing and supportive housing and just trying to turn those beds over quicker."

New shelter model offers safety, privacy

Butt said the renovations to Barry House and Metro Turning Point have made them "more dignified" places to stay, and is becoming a common model for emergency shelters.

What used to be wide open rooms — and in the case of Metro Turning Point, full of bunk beds — are now broken up into so-called "snugs."

"It's kind of like a cubicle except there are actual walls ... so that the folks that are sleeping actually have privacy," she said.

Metro Turning Point and its sister shelter, Barry House, renovated in the spring to create walled-in "snugs" that offer greater safety and privacy for guests. (Submitted by Shelter Nova Scotia)

It's resulted in fewer confrontations between people at the shelter.

"We've already seen less fights because there's nobody kind of getting up in people's faces," Butt said. "This is the way it should have always been."

Positive as those changes may be, and hopeful as Butt is that they'll help transition more people into permanent housing solutions, there is still an immediate demand for shelter beds — especially with colder months on the horizon.

'Deep urgency' to find more housing before winter

Butt said Shelter Nova Scotia and other organizations across Halifax are now collaborating to find more space before winter.

"It's anything from us purchasing a hotel to, you know, getting a building that is not occupied," she said.

That pressing demand for emergency shelter beds is also on the mind of Jeff Karabanow, one of the founders of Out of the Cold, an emergency shelter that usually opens in November or December and runs until the spring.

Out of the Cold does not have a dedicated space and had to scramble last winter to find something that could accommodate physical distancing. It ended up renting part of a vacant hotel, which Karabanow said is a possibility again this year, but could be cost prohibitive.

He's still shopping around for an appropriate space.

"I think this is going to be a very difficult winter for folks that are experiencing homelessness or precarious housing," said Karabanow. "There's a deep urgency to figure something out."

Karabanow said the solution needs government support from all levels. Affordable housing and homelessness have become election issues in Halifax's current municipal election, with voting day on Oct. 17. 

"Affordable housing is a priority in debates and discussion right now, so I'm really hoping something materializes quickly," Karabanow said.

Butt echoed that sentiment, saying she's glad to see the political will, but is waiting to see action.

"This is how we start. We start by talking about it."

About the Author

Taryn Grant

Reporter

Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter and web writer for CBC Nova Scotia. You can email her with tips and feedback at taryn.grant@cbc.ca

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