Battling homelessness in N.S. has been a priority during the pandemic. What happens now?
Hotel stays, harm reduction were effective stopgaps, but long-term solutions needed, stakeholders say
There's concern that government and public support for people experiencing homelessness in the province will wane as restrictions related to COVID-19 are lifted and Nova Scotians are encouraged to return to some sense of normalcy, say those who work on the front lines of homelessness.
A new report on the impact of the pandemic on people experiencing homelessness in Nova Scotia found some workers believe an increase in federal and provincial support was in part due to fear of unhoused individuals contributing to the spread of COVID-19.
"Many service stakeholders were concerned that post-pandemic attention would shift to other priorities and the sector would go back to being largely ignored and under-resourced," said the report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent think-tank focused on social, economic and environmental justice.
The report, released April 6, was based on interviews with people experiencing homelessness as well as unofficial groups of stakeholders — including government and Public Health officials, shelter providers and social workers in the Halifax and Cape Breton regional municipalities — that met daily during the initial waves of the pandemic.
More people looking for housing 'than ever before'
It found while some effective measures were implemented early on in the pandemic, including providing hotel rooms for those with nowhere to live, the need for long-term solutions remains while an increasing number of people are becoming homeless.
"The numbers haven't gone down," said Jeff Karabanow, one of the report's authors. "There's more people looking for housing now than ever before."
As of April 5, there were 527 people experiencing homelessness in Halifax, according to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia. That's nearly 100 more people than this time last year.
Data isn't widely available in other parts of the province, but a 2018 count in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality found that 278 people were unhoused. An updated count from November 2021 for CBRM is expected in the coming weeks.
Laura Patterson, who volunteers at a tent encampment in a west-end Halifax park, said while the pandemic brought positive changes like shelter renovations and the installation of modular units, there were also setbacks.
Forty beds were lost when the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre's shelter closed last December, and additional supports aren't coming fast enough, she said.
"We're actually still losing ground right now," Patterson said.
She said the atmosphere at Meagher Park, known by some as the People's Park, has been "bleak" for the people staying there.
"It hasn't changed a whole lot," said Patterson, who delivers supplies and food obtained through public donations.
"They need somewhere warm, safe [and] dry to live. They need access to food. They need access to health care. They need access to mental health supports. And for the most part, they don't have that."
Halifax street navigator Eric Jonsson said he isn't surprised by the growing number of people experiencing homelessness. He said the pandemic and soaring property values have been making it harder to find places for people to live.
"Lots of people are afraid to go into shelters because they think shelters may have more COVID than the broader population," he said.
Jonsson is working on a so-called point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness in Halifax. The Canada-wide initiative, which measures sheltered and unsheltered homelessness, hasn't been done since 2018 because of the pandemic.
The data collected by communities is used to inform policies and programs at the federal level.
He expects the number of people who are experiencing homelessness to be higher than what the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia has reported because the data will include people who've been unhoused for a minimum of three days as opposed to two weeks.
'Housing is that basic platform'
Unhoused individuals who were interviewed for the report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives made several recommendations for solutions going forward, including a universal basic income, increased addictions services and harm-reduction programs as well as mental health supports.
Karabanow, a professor at Dalhousie University's school of social work, said one of the most effective short-term solutions implemented during the pandemic has been the involvement of Public Health, which launched harm-reduction initiatives, comfort centres and a dedicated phone line.
The presence of Public Health officials at the table allowed for homelessness to be understood as a health issue, the report noted.
"We have to see homelessness from a social-determinants-of-health perspective," said Karabanow, whose research includes homelessness and poverty.
"Housing is that basic platform. It's not a panacea but [it] at least provides the grounding."
As Nova Scotia transitions to the next stage of the pandemic, Karabanow said what's needed is to keep the conversation going among stakeholders because the impacts of COVID-19 will be felt "for years."
"Those collaborative pieces still are there," he said. "Whether we can still maintain the role of Public Health that is very much strained in different aspects of society right now, we still have to see that."