Council votes against turning Halifax Common into tent site
12 councillors voted against and 4 councillors voted for it
Halifax regional council has voted against turning a section of the Halifax Common into a dedicated tent site for people experiencing homelessness.
Twelve councillors voted against the motion and four voted in favour of it on Tuesday night. The recommendation was outlined in a homeless strategy report prepared by housing and homelessness director Max Chauvin.
"The only solution to this is to get our asses in gear, spend the money, buy the hard sheds, buy the modulars, buy the prefabs, get the people indoors because we are not ever going to control the tents," said Coun. Shawn Cleary during debate Tuesday evening.
Cleary said he couldn't support making the Common a tent site because it couldn't be "time bounded"
"Unless we have another place for them to go, we can't move them."
The other four recommendations in the report were approved, which included:
- Leasing private property where people can shelter.
- Establishing more encampments, temporary housing or tiny home locations on municipal properties like parking lots and surplus lands.
- Writing to the province to ask for its "immediate plans to create deeply affordable housing options" in the Halifax Regional Municipality.
- Research non-park properties, campgrounds and outdoor facilities for people taking shelter in vehicles.
An extra recommendation was also approved which called for a staff report to explore the possibility of buying and installing pre-fabricated structures to provide rapid response emergency housing in the municipality.
Councillors say province needs to do its 'bloody job'
Earlier Tuesday, the province announced it ended the fiscal year with a $116-million surplus.
"If the provincial government has a surplus after expecting a large deficit, I know where they could spend the money in a way that would help a lot of our fellow human beings," said Mayor Mike Savage.
Some councillors called on the province to do more to help with the homelessness situation.
"We've got to embarrass them into doing something, you know, I say put up tents, all the tents on the common, and then declare a disaster. So maybe then we can get some federal assistance," said Coun. Lisa Blackburn.
"Maybe we can get some provincial assistance. Maybe having the Red Cross come in to help with this will embarrass the province into doing their bloody job."
Coun. Sam Austin said the province needs to be held to account.
"Success is not measured by how much money you're spending. Success is measured by what is the actual impact out there in the world," he said.
Last year, council voted to establish five locations that would offer enough space for 44 tents. This past month, the report noted there were more than 90 tents among those sites.
Outside of the established locations, the report says there were 62 more tents set up by people experiencing homelessness in the past year, with 30 of those still active as of the drafting of the report. This includes the Victoria Park encampment, which has nearly 40 tents, Grand Parade with 17 tents and small camps on right-of-ways or more isolated spaces with one or two tents.
"Unfortunately, the growth in the number of people experiencing homelessness is expected to continue," the report states.
Councillor weighs in
Before the council meeting on Tuesday, Waye Mason, councillor for Halifax South Downtown, said he'd already received hundreds of calls, texts and emails from people opposed to a tent site on the Common.
Mason said he understood the concern, but said the housing crisis has become dire, with about 200 people living in tents and more than 1,000 others at risk of becoming homeless in the city.
"And so that requires us to do things that we never thought we'd have to do before," Mason told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon on Tuesday. "The problem is that it's grown so quickly."
He said it's up to the province and the federal government to provide funding and land to address the housing crisis.
Mason pointed to the province's recent purchase of a motel in Lunenburg for health-care workers and the purchase of modular homes for people displaced in the wildfires earlier this year.
"We know that there's a capacity there with the province to make rapid decisions, spend a lot of money and deploy housing, so quickly we need something like that for homelessness."
Some people walking through the Common before the council meeting on Tuesday agreed something needs to be done to help people who need homes, but said setting up tents on the large green space might not be the best idea.
"If that's the solution that they want to propose, and that's what they go for, sure. I am very in support of this. I just think there's better ways than putting a spot for folks to put their tents," said Jillian Boyle.
Martin Wright said he's starting to notice more tents on the Dartmouth side.
"Anything you can do to accommodate homeless people is a good thing for sure," Wright said.
Immediate space needs
In addition to the Halifax Common, the report also suggested that Grand Parade and the southern end of Victoria Park could be turned into designated tent spaces to address immediate needs.
"At the core of the housing crisis is a lack of affordable and deeply affordable housing, along with food insecurity, significant challenges accessing physical and mental health care, and insufficient income," the report says.
It cites the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's Spring 2023 Housing Market Outlook, which anticipates more rent increases, low vacancy rates and higher operating costs for property managers.
The report says the private sector wouldn't be able to deliver the "deeply affordable" housing needed "without substantial government capital and/or operational support."
"Construction and financing costs make it impossible to offer, for example, a multi-bedroom unit for $400, including utilities."
For large encampments, the report notes it could cost more than $30,000 a year for garbage service and water delivery. Adding power would require "an investment" of $50,000 to $60,000, plus ongoing utility costs. Supervision and support at the encampment site would "require an investment of additional resources including site and washroom maintenance for the Halifax Commons location.
"Municipal expenditures in response to homelessness are increasing and will exceed the budget for this year. Staff will continue to seek funding from other levels of government and clarification of roles and responsibilities," the report states, adding that staff would return to council at a later date with more information on costs.
With files from CBC Radio's Maritime Noon and Celina Aalders