Halifax winter shelter prepares to open to high demand
Out of the Cold will offer 25 beds in a Barrington Street building this winter
Operators of a new shelter in Halifax are preparing to open to high demand as the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to rise.
The 25-bed shelter at 1221 Barrington St., run by Out of the Cold, is slated to open Dec. 12 and will stay open until the end of April.
Out of the Cold used to operate an overnight drop-in centre through the winter months, run mostly by volunteers, but this year it's offering a staffed, 24/7 shelter for the first time.
Michelle Malette, the executive director, said the shift is a reflection of COVID-19 and the need to physically distance, and a desire to offer some more permanency.
"There won't be that urgency every night of rushing, and the chaos of trying to figure out whether or not you're getting a bed and then having to leave with all your belongings at eight o'clock in the morning," said Malette.
She said the new space is also "more dignified" than the open rooms with cots that Out of the Cold has offered in the past.
There will be small rooms for two to three people each, bathrooms with showers, laundry facilities and a kitchen.
Possibly last year as emergency shelter
Still, Malette said the new space is a stop gap to something different. In part it is because the building is only available for one season, but also because Out of the Cold is hoping to become a year-round supportive housing provider.
For several years, Out of the Cold used the basement of St. Matthew's Church for its winter drop-in operation. Last year, it temporarily borrowed space in a building on College Street owned by the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre, and later moved some clients into hotel rooms.
Malette said it's always a struggle to find appropriate space.
"We've never really been in a position where we have been able to be really picky."
Creating supportive housing — a model that melds housing and access to social services in one space — will hinge on finding enough stable funding, Malette said.
This year, Out of the Cold has tapped into a stream of funding from Ottawa directed at alleviating homelessness.
The provincial government announced last month that it would be spending $1.7 million on shelters in Halifax to bring capacity back up to pre-COVID levels. About 30 beds were cut this past winter to ensure physical distancing.
It's not yet clear how that money will be spent.
What is clear is that demand for shelter beds is much greater than what's currently available, or even what's soon to be available.
Malette said last winter Out of the Cold regularly heard from more than a dozen people each day looking for a bed, and the number of people experiencing homelessness in Halifax has only grown since then.
According to figures recorded by the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, the number of chronically homeless in Halifax doubled between October 2019 and November 2020. In the past month alone, the number has gone from 477 to 492.
Beds to be offered based on need
Eric Jonsson, a social worker with Navigator Street Outreach, will be helping Malette identify who most needs Out of the Cold's new beds.
He said it's a complicated and unenviable task.
"I don't like having that power ... I don't like playing who gets to sleep safely inside and who doesn't get to stay inside," said Jonsson.
But he prefers that approach to the alternative, which is first-come-first-served. That's the way most shelters operate but Jonsson said it doesn't always serve the most vulnerable people, rather those who are most familiar with the system.
He said he has a list of 40-50 people who are sleeping outside and may want to move in. Once he and Malette sort through that list, Jonsson said he'll start reaching out to people this week to offer them beds for when the shelter opens.
With files from CBC's Mainstreet