Hotels continue to act as housing stop-gap for hundreds of Nova Scotians
Once a rare practice, the province now spends millions each year to house people in hotel rooms
Last year the province continued to rely heavily on hotels for emergency shelter.
For two years in a row, Nova Scotia has placed hundreds of people without permanent homes in hotels, and the minister in charge says despite the cost of the practice, it will continue until the housing crisis abates.
The Department of Community Services has used hotels as an emergency housing stop-gap for years, but it was a rarity. That started changing in 2019 when the rental vacancy rate in Halifax dropped. In 2020, the number of emergency hotel stays skyrocketed, as did the amount of money spent on those stays.
Last year the province continued to rely heavily on hotels for emergency shelter, as revealed by new figures released through a combination of access-to-information requests and direct requests to the department.
In 2021, there were 282 unique cases in the employment support and income assistance programs that required placement in hotels. The number of individual people represented by that statistic is almost certainly higher, as a case can be either a single person or a family, including a spouse and/or dependent children.
Those stays cost the province nearly $1.5 million.
Both the number of cases and the total cost were slightly down last year relative to 2020, when 307 cases of emergency hotel stays cost $1.7 million — but there are other factors to take into account for 2021.
The province paid out $128,000 to shelters that had supported hotel stays for an untold number of people last winter when the shelters had reached capacity.
Another three dozen hotel rooms were rented out to people exiting prisons and jails who would have otherwise been homeless, costing more than $930,000. That money was channeled through the John Howard Society and Coverdale Courtwork Society.
Another $516,000 went to Out of the Cold to temporarily move its shelter into a hotel during a COVID-19 outbreak, and to help some of the people evicted from tent encampments last August to move into hotels.
In total, more than $3 million went toward housing at least a few hundred people in hotels over the course of 2021.
Hotels not a permanent solution
Michelle Malette, executive director of Out of the Cold, said the hotel model works, in that it provides people with an opportunity to be inside — but it has limitations.
"It's never going to be permanent housing, obviously," said Malette. "It's a really transient and temporary opportunity for shelter."
Malette said the lack of kitchens in most hotel rooms makes it costly for people to feed themselves during their stays, as they're always buying prepared meals. Additionally, Malette said the people Out of the Cold has supported in hotels have often been stigmatized and sometimes kicked out by hotel staff.
"The first hotel that we stayed [at] in the summer, we went in with, I think, 19 people, and I think we left with like … eight or nine of our original folks."
Connecting people to other services
Karla MacFarlane, the minister of community services, said while it's not a long-term answer to the housing crisis, she's willing to keep using hotels for emergency housing until the supply of affordable housing in Nova Scotia improves.
MacFarlane said she thinks the model gives her department an efficient way to connect people with whatever services they might need, including mental health and addictions treatment or employment support.
"Having that link where you can now bond and create a relationship with the individual works quite well," she said.
The goal, however, is to connect people with permanent housing, and there are few housing options for Nova Scotians on income assistance. The monthly allowance for an individual — which is meant to cover food, clothing, shelter, fuel, utilities, and personal items — starts at $686.
In the fall of 2020, the last period for which the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has released statistics, average rent for a bachelor apartment in Halifax was $865.
Still, MacFarlane said she believes her department is having some success in transitioning people from hotels into permanent homes.
How often those transitions happen is not clear.
No data on where people go after hotel stays
A spokesperson for the Department of Community Services said "given the tracking complexities of individuals transitioning from hotels to other housing options, we are unable to provide data at this time for movement of individuals from hotel to permanent housing."
Christina Deveau said via email that clients are not obligated to share their housing plans with the department.
"However, we recognize that better data collection is required, and are working with community partners within HRM to better report on the successful transition of individuals to permanent housing and better understand the gaps and challenges within our system impeding successful transition."
With files from Shaina Luck