Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre homeless shelter in Halifax to close Dec. 31

The shelter's director says the facility 'missed the mark,' but staff say they suspect the effort to unionize is behind the closure.

The shelter's operator says the centre isn't serving its purpose

The Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre on North Park Street in Halifax is scheduled to close for restructuring on Dec. 31. (Robert Short/CBC)

A homeless shelter geared toward housing Indigenous people in Halifax has announced it will close its doors Dec. 31, citing a lack of funding for the new year. 

But employees at the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre's shelter said they suspect efforts to unionize are to blame for the closure, which will affect 40 people currently staying at the facility on North Park Street.

The centre's executive director, Pamela Glode-Desrochers, told shelter staff in a letter Monday that the building's lease ends Dec. 31 and funding from the province for 2022 had not yet been secured.

In rushing to have the centre open by January 2021, Glode-Desrochers said many cultural plans were not implemented and that needs to be corrected. 

Glode-Desrochers said the centre will take January and February to ensure tools and resources are put into place so "urban Indigenous peoples have a safe space and that staff are supported in a healthy manner."

Staff members said word of the unexpected closure comes at a time when they were on the verge of filing an application with the province's labour board to unionize.

Jessica Oldham is a case manager at the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre's shelter. (Robert Short/CBC)

"It was kind of sprung on all of us that our contracts would be terminated at the end of the month," said Jessica Oldham, a case manager at the shelter.

"So not only are we putting 40 clients on the streets, but we've left 20 employees without a job in the new year, as well."

Oldham said there are 431 homeless people in Halifax, 91 of whom are Indigenous. She said all but six residents at the shelter are Indigenous.

If they move to another facility, Oldham said they will not have access to many of the cultural supports that the centre provides.

Case manager Denise Smith said other shelters in the city are full. (Robert Short/CBC)

Denise Smith, who is also a case manager, said it's unlikely that residents will find another shelter.

"We turn away multiple people daily," she said. "And when we have to turn people away, we call all of the shelters —  male, female, coed. And they're always full."

Glode-Desrochers denied that the closure has to do with attempts to unionize.

"I didn't even know about the union until I told [staff] that we were going to hit reset," she said.

She also disputed Oldham's estimate that the majority of people at the shelter are Indigenous, saying only five or six people at the shelter are Indigenous. She said the centre has 10 to 15 people "on a regular basis who are saying they're Indigenous and they're not."

Pamela Glode-Desrochers is executive director of the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre. (Robert Short/CBC)

Those numbers indicate the centre has failed and "missed the mark," Glode-Desrochers said.

She said the community does not feel safe in its own shelter and Indigenous people feel they are being pushed out.

Brandy Laperle, who said she is "part Indigenous," but identifies "more with being Caucasian," has been a resident of the shelter for a week and lived there for two months in the spring. 

She said she is trying to stay positive after hearing news of the closure, but a lot of the people staying there are very upset and angry.

"My Aboriginal part, it's still an important part to me, and the spirituality I find here, it feels like home," Laperle said.

Laperle said she has friends she might be able to stay with, and she knows of at least one other shelter that might be an option.

Glode-Desrochers said the plan is eventually for some clients to transition to Diamond Bailey House on College Street in Halifax. The housing development for Indigenous people will include an emergency shelter and permanent housing, but it is not expected to be ready until May.

Glode-Desrochers said the centre hopes to provide temporary shelter again for Indigenous people before Diamond Bailey House opens.

"They're marginalized. There's racism that occurs within [shelters], they get picked on, they are made fun of," she said.

"There's all kind of reasons, and they're not safe. You know, racism runs deep, even in the encampments. Indigenous people aren't in the encampments, they're pushed out of the encampments."

She also said the centre is not looking to "cut anyone out" and hopes to work with the province and other non-profits and organizations to transition non-Indigenous people out of the shelter and find other places for them.

Brandy Laperle is a resident of the shelter and says many people are angry and upset about the impending closure. (Robert Short/CBC)

Lisa Jarrett of the Department of Community Services told CBC News the province is working with the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre on the restructuring to ensure urban Indigenous Nova Scotians have access to culturally appropriate services.

The province has provided $850,000 in emergency funding to the centre for emergency shelter placements until the Diamond Bailey House opens, Jarrett said in an email.

She said $1.6 million was already announced for the centre to operate the Diamond Bailey House and $76,000 will be provided for startup costs in the first year.

"There is no disruption for shelter clients," she said.

"We have assurances from the [Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre] that all existing clients will continue to be supported without disruption."


With files from Gareth Hampshire