Nova Scotia

N.S. housing crisis said to be pushing more families toward homelessness

Advocates say an unprecedented number of people are finding themselves on the brink of homelessness in Nova Scotia.

Growing population, trend toward short-term rentals hurts already tight housing market

Julissa Stewart, pictured here with her daughter last August, has been looking for an affordable home for her family of five in Cape Breton for a year and a half. (Lisa Delorey)

Barring a miracle, Julissa Stewart and her family of five in River Bourgeois, N.S., have just two weeks before they will be homeless again.

"You never think it's going to happen to you until it does," Stewart said.

Advocates say an unprecedented number of people across Nova Scotia are finding themselves on the brink of homelessness.

While many think it's an urban issue, the housing crisis is hitting the rest of Nova Scotia hard.

Stewart has been struggling to secure stable, affordable housing since January 2020. In 2019, the family lost its business in Antigonish, and Stewart's husband, Adam Pottie, was injured in a car accident and unable to work. They are looking for a home where they have enough room for Pottie's two sons, aged 12 and 11, and their one-year-old daughter. 

"Unless you're in the middle of this right now, it's really hard to understand how bad it really is," Stewart said.

The family had to split up for a time, staying with relatives in Antigonish and St. Peter's. They have been told it could be years before they can secure affordable housing in Antigonish or Cape Breton through an affordable housing organization.

Krista McNair, far left, is shown with staff and volunteers from the Truro Homeless Outreach Society in front of the Hub House on the day a mobile vaccination clinic visited to administer doses to guests. (Truro Homeless Outreach Society)

At one point they thought they had found a house in St. Peter's, only to be defrauded out of a $400 deposit, she says.

"We were so desperate and so stressed out," Stewart said. "I didn't want to have a baby and not have a place to live." 

Eventually, someone in their network connected them with a man in Ontario who owned an empty house in River Bourgeois.

'It's absolutely terrifying'

He agreed to reduce the rent while the family searched for longer-term housing. But it's been over a year now with no other options in sight, and they have to vacate the house by the end of the month because the owner's family plans to use it.

"It's absolutely terrifying for anybody to be in this situation.... It's not a personal problem. It's a provincial, systemic problem," said Stewart.

Krista McNair of the Truro Homeless Outreach Society said homelessness tends to be less visible in rural areas than in the city centres. That makes it harder to track.

With fewer formal resources available, people are less likely to seek organized support, often resorting to couch surfing, staying in unsafe situations or camping in the woods, said McNair.

But a coalition of community groups led by the Colchester Anti-Poverty Network recently completed a study of affordable housing supply and need in the Truro–Colchester area. It shows 53 individuals in Colchester County reported experiencing homelessness over a one-month period this spring.

This is a slide from the recently completed Truro–Colchester Affordable Housing Needs & Supply Study. (Turner Drake Consulting)

That's a rate of one in 1,000 people — higher than Halifax Regional Municipality's homelessness rate that, according to statistics from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, is 0.8 in 1,000 people. 

While these numbers confirm her observations, McNair said they only capture people who have sought assistance in downtown Truro. She and other advocates believe there are far more people experiencing homelessness in the county not captured in the survey. 

"Essentially, we are in a dire crisis," McNair said.

The outreach society's shelter with 13 beds has been at capacity for over a year, and they have had to turn away 90 people seeking emergency shelter.

"We're talking about folks sleeping rough outside and Truro being known as, unfortunately, the hub of human trafficking," McNair said. "If folks don't have a safe place to go, they are forced back into other forms of precarious housing.

"We're talking life or death."

Riverside Estates is one of Antigonish Affordable Housing Association's developments. (Antigonish Affordable Housing Association)

Of the individuals currently experiencing homelessness, the study shows an almost even split between women and men. Fourteen per cent identify as Indigenous, which is high considering Indigenous people represent only five per cent of the total population.

Almost a quarter of the individuals experiencing homelessness were between ages 13 and 24. They cited family breakdown, mental illness and domestic violence as their top three challenges.

Short-term rentals adding pressure

McNair said the pandemic-driven influx of people moving to Nova Scotia combined with the trend of rental properties being sold or converted into short-term rentals is adding pressure to an already tight housing market.

"While I'm super excited that Nova Scotia's population is at a historic high, it's also making those that are marginalized even more so," McNair said. "The ones that can't afford the average market rents are suffering." 

Janice Johansson, in Amherst, has been desperately hunting for three months for a new rental for her family of five. Her landlord told Johansson via Facebook Messenger that she and her family would have to leave because his daughter would be moving into the house.

Janice Johansson and her family are being evicted from their home in Amherst. Johansson says they have resources but can't find another home. (Janice Johansson)

Money isn't a problem for Johansson. She said as soon as a listing pops up, it's taken.

"We're working professionals," Johansson said. "We're very good tenants."

She's appealing their eviction to the Residential Tenancies Board. Last Friday, the local utility showed up to turn off the water at the request of the landlord, but didn't end up doing it.

If they are forced out before finding another rental, they have few options and would have to resort to staying in a hotel as long as she could afford it.

"And then if we didn't find anything, we would either be crammed into my mom's tiny bachelor apartment or homeless," Johansson said.

Melaney White, a social worker in Antigonish, says the housing crisis means people are stuck in abusive relationships and volatile family situations. She knows people who have resorted to camping for the summer.

"It's a pretty desperate situation, White said. 

Food security 'a big issue'

The Antigonish Affordable Housing Society has over 200 applications for 14 existing units and is in the process of building 12 more.

White sees two other major problems exacerbated by the housing crisis — mental health and food insecurity.

"I think we can probably expect to see our [emergency rooms] overflowing with people in crisis or in psychosis due to the stressors of not having shelter or not having their basic needs met," said White.

And as people are forced to spend increasingly high percentages of their limited income on rent, they have less money available for food, medicine and other necessities. 

"Certainly food security is going to be another big issue," she said.

Evictions for the purpose of renovations are currently banned in Nova Scotia, but evictions are permitted if a house is sold or if the landlord wants it for "personal use," meaning either the landlord or a close family member plans to move in.

The Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission, formed last November to study the province's affordable housing situation, released recommendations on May 31. On July 6, the provincial government announced it is committed to all 17 of the commission's recommendations, including spending $25 million on affordable housing programs.

That spending will include the construction of from 600 to 900 affordable units within the next 18 months. 

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