Nova Scotia

Volunteers, neighbours demand action over Meagher Park tent site

Volunteer Laura Patterson says conditions at Meagher Park, known by some as People's Park, have deteriorated this winter. A divide is also deepening between people connected to the west-end Halifax park and some people who live nearby.

Several people who live nearby say they’re concerned about violence, drug use

People living at and volunteering at the park on the corner of Chebucto Road and Dublin Street have dubbed it the People's Park. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Seven months since people experiencing homelessness began sleeping in tents in a small park in Halifax's west end, divides are also deepening among people connected to the park and some of the people who live nearby.

Laura Patterson is a volunteer who helps bring food and supplies to residents at Meagher Park, known by some as People's Park. She said garbage is piling up, attracting rats, and when the tents aren't covered in ice or snow, people are sinking up to their ankles in the mud.

"As neighbours would tell you, it can be a loud place," Patterson told CBC Radio's Mainstreet recently. "The level of sleep deprivation at the park, I think, is huge. It's not a place where people can heal. It's not a place where people can regroup. It's a stop-gap."

The tents at Meagher Park were set up after city officials evicted people from public parks and green spaces downtown last August.

It's difficult to know how many people are staying at the park on a full-time basis, but a street navigator says it's likely a handful, with more people stopping by for food or company.

On the weekend, Halifax Regional Municipality released a statement about a structure removed from what's known as People's Park on Chebucto Road — citing safety reasons. Laura Patterson, a volunteer at the park, tells host Jeff Douglas about the conditions for residents living there, and what kind of help they need.

Several residents who live nearby also say they've witnessed physical altercations, drug use and harassment from people connected to the park. Many neighbours regularly call the police.

Police were recently at the park to take down a wooden structure that was built to serve as a kitchen. The municipality said it was "illegal and unsafe" and a second attempt to set up a food tent was also quashed by police.

Halifax Regional Police were at the park last Friday when volunteers were trying to erect a tent structure to store food. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Halifax Regional Police wouldn't immediately provide statistics about Meagher Park, and told CBC News it would have to file an access-to-information request to get that information. The municipality says it's received roughly 94 complaints or calls through 311 since last August.

Bruce Wilson lives on Chebucto Road, not far from the park.

"You really don't know what could occur next, and that's very concerning. That's what creates the anxiety," he said.

"You have to call the police because there's actual violence going on, and people are being attacked and something has to be done."

Coun. Lindell Smith said in an email to CBC News that he expects people living at Meagher Park to move into the modular units in Halifax once they're built. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Wilson and other residents say they've repeatedly asked the municipality and the province what is being done to help people and move them inside.

"Our frustration is a lack of information," he said. "Maybe an answer isn't readily available, but truly what the intentions are and what's being looked at."

Focus is on modular units, says councillor

Coun. Lindell Smith told Mainstreet in an email last week that it's his understanding many people staying at Meagher Park will be offered space, through a service provider, at the modular units once they're built in Halifax.

"It's difficult to say that all individuals currently on site have been offered support because numbers/people staying on site can change daily," he wrote.

The Halifax modular units will house 38 people.

But last week, the city pushed back the completion of the site off Cogswell Street once again — they were initially supposed to be built by the end of January. Now, the expected completion date is May 6.

A spokesperson for the municipality said even though the units are being delivered to the site this week, it will take time to complete construction, including creating a commercial kitchen and barrier-free bedrooms and a washroom.

Laura Patterson is a volunteer at People's Park. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Eric Jonsson, a street navigator in Halifax who visits Meagher Park a few times a week, said there are several reasons people are still staying there.

"People have the right to choose what they want to do, right?" he said. "So some people, they might not want the temporary nature of the hotels, or they might not want to go into a shelter where they're sharing a small room with a number of other people."

Temporary shelters and hotels also aren't suitable for many people since they don't come with mental health or addictions support.

What it really comes down to, said Jonsson, is a lack of affordable housing — people want to move into a permanent, private place to call their own.

At one time last fall there were about 18 people staying at the park. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

Jonsson said he believes temporary shelters set up by the province, city and Roman Catholic Church, have helped many people this winter.

He said tent encampments, like the one at Meagher Park, don't paint the full picture of homelessness in Halifax.

"[People] might not be sleeping outside, but they might be living with an abusive partner, or they might be really struggling with their drug use and losing alone … but people kind of stay where they are because there are no other options."

Patterson, the Meagher Park volunteer, said it's not "a peaceful, wonderful place," but it's the only option for the people who are living there.

"These are very complex people with complex histories," she said. "There is mental illness. There is substance-use disorder, you know, as well as being hungry."

Patterson said she didn't believe anyone currently living at the park would want to do an interview about the situation.

Jonsson said he's seen people set up similar tent sites at other locations and then later abandon them.

"I think there's been a lot more support for the people at Meagher Park right now, so I don't see it going anywhere," he said.

Neighbour says she's at breaking point

Emily Keast lives beside Meagher Park. She said a couple of her neighbours have already moved away temporarily due to concerns about the park.

"This cannot go on any longer. I'm at my breaking point. Every neighbour that I have spoken to is at their breaking point," she said.

A small group of unhoused people have been living in tents at Meagher Park, also known as People's Park, in the west end of Halifax since last summer. People familiar with the situation are saying the city and province need to do more. Emily Keast, who lives nearby, tells Mainstreet's Emma Smith that residents also have many concerns.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he understands people who live near the park are frustrated.

"I'm frustrated," he said. "I don't think in Nova Scotia people should have to live in parks. The question is where we're going to direct that frustration. I don't think it should be directed to the people who have to live outside because the government hasn't provided a place inside for them."

What the province is doing

As of March 8, there were 487 people experiencing homelessness in the Halifax region, according to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia. That includes 380 people who are chronically homeless.

Nova Scotia's ministers of municipal affairs and housing and community services wouldn't do an interview about the situation at Meagher Park. Both departments sent statements instead.

The Department of Community Services said it's working on both temporary and permanent solutions to address the complex problem of homelessness.

Street navigator Eric Jonsson visits the Meagher Park site a few times a week. (Dave Laughlin/CBC )

"The end goal is for permanent solutions, but it's important to have temporary, interim solutions so the permanent ones can be done right," a spokesperson said in an email.

The department pointed to $10.1 million in spending over two years, announced last fall, to provide wrap-around supports, shelter and culturally responsive housing across Nova Scotia.

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet Halifax