With nowhere to go, number of income assistance clients living in hotels skyrockets
Province spent $1.7M last year on emergency hotel stays
Evicted from his Halifax apartment on March 31 for rental arrears, Stanley Hemming packed a few changes of clothes, some essential paperwork and little else.
He went to the hospital, in part because as a diabetic, he knew his blood sugar was dangerously high. But in equal part, he hoped to be admitted just so he would have a place to sleep that night.
Hemming, 61, wasn't admitted to hospital that day, but to his relief, he was offered a bed elsewhere. Staff with the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services placed Hemming in a hotel room, where he's been living ever since.
With that move, Hemming became part of a long list of Nova Scotians who have recently made emergency stays at hotels.
It isn't new for the provincial government to put income assistance clients in hotels, but the prevalence of the stopgap measure has skyrocketed each of the past two years.
Between 2016 and 2018, the number of cases of emergency hotel stays fluctuated between about 30 and about 50. In 2019, the case count jumped to 122. Last year, it jumped again, to 307.
The first quarter of 2021 is on track to reflect 2020, with 77 cases from Jan. 1 to March 31. If those numbers keep up for the remaining quarters, there will be more than 300 cases again this year.
Spending increased, too, and not in direct proportion to the number of cases. On average, in 2016, the province spent just under $330 per case. By 2020, the average cost per case ballooned to more than $5,500.
The Department of Community Services would not share any data on the average length of stay, but the increased cost per case could indicate that stays are getting longer.
'Under a gun every week'
Home care nurses who had been visiting Hemming daily at his apartment now visit his hotel room. He receives hotel cleaning services, he has a TV to occupy him and a mini-fridge and microwave to store and prepare his meals. It's reasonably comfortable, but it isn't permanent.
Each week, Hemming said, he waits to find out if his stay will be renewed for another seven days.
"I'm literally under a gun every week. The stress doesn't help your health any, that's for sure," he said. "I'd be in a lot of trouble if they ever decided, 'no more approval.'"
Where Hemming will go next is a question mark. Halifax has a tight rental market and as a recipient of income assistance, Hemming's budget leaves him few options on the private rental market. He applied for priority access to a spot in public housing, which may allow him to circumvent the long wait-list, but his initial request was denied. He's appealing that decision.
Tight rental market, pandemic contributed to spike, minister says
According to Community Services Minister Kelly Regan, there are a variety of reasons for the spike in hotel stays. A low rental vacancy rate in Halifax, which hit one per cent in 2019, is one factor, she said. Then in 2020, the pandemic made things worse when Public Health called for shelters to reduce their capacity to allow for physical distancing.
No matter the reason, Regan said she doesn't want people staying in hotels indefinitely. But she said there are circumstances where a temporary hotel stay is the best option, like for a woman fleeing domestic violence who requires privacy.
Ultimately, Regan said, her department is trying to find permanent housing for its clients while also addressing urgent, individual needs.
"We're trying to fly the plane and also repair it at the same time," she said.
By way of "repair" work, Regan pointed to the addition of more specialized workers who help clients find and maintain housing, and increased spending on rent supplements, which bridge the gap between what a person can afford and the actual market cost of rent.
Those measures, however, do not change the provincewide housing shortage that Nova Scotia is facing.
Regan said her department is "actively working on solutions" to that with the Department of Infrastructure and Housing.
'A hotel … it's not a home'
Although they declined to share exactly how long people are staying in hotels, a community services spokesperson said stays generally range from a few days to a few months.
Darren Donovan's stay has been in the order of months. He moved into a motel in January after being evicted from an apartment building on Dartmouth's Victoria Road.
Last fall, Donovan's landlord ordered him and every other tenant in two neighbouring buildings to leave and make way for renovations. Those were the last legal renovictions in the province before the government imposed a moratorium on the practice.
Donovan has been looking for a new apartment ever since his eviction notice arrived six months ago, to no avail. He started a new job as a traffic controller this month after spending most of the past year unemployed. When his paycheques start coming in, he hopes he'll finally be able to secure a new place to live.
Living in one small room, without a kitchen, has grown tiresome, he said.
"Living in a hotel — to be honest with you, it's not a home."
Most of Donovan's possessions have been in storage since he left his last apartment.
Non-profits also supporting hotel stays
The provincial government is not alone in using hotels to house people in urgent need of a place to stay.
That approach became costly this winter for Adsum House, which took about $55,000 out of a purse that was meant to go towards construction of a new permanent housing project, and redirected it to emergency hotel stays.
"We needed to bring people inside. It was winter, it was a pandemic, the weather was not always co-operating and not everyone has a different solution," said Sheri Lecker, executive director of Adsum House.
During question period at the provincial legislature last week, Regan said she was deeply concerned to hear that non-profits were spending tens of thousands of dollars on hotel stays. She suggested Adsum House and others bring their bills to her department.
"I am sure that we will be able to assist them," Regan said.
Lecker said she plans to write a letter to the minister to start a conversation about the offer.
With files from Michael Gorman