Nova Scotia

Unhoused people should be allowed to shelter in parks, says Halifax advocacy group

P.A.D.S. Community Network is calling on the municipality to issue special permission that would allow unhoused people to use parks for subsistence shelter.

P.A.D.S. Community Network says there are more than 540 people experiencing homelessness in Halifax

Sakura Saunders, left, and Ashlee Hinchey, right, from P.A.D.S. Community Network present to the community planning and economic development standing committee on Thursday, April 21, 2022. (Victoria Welland/CBC)

A housing advocacy group in Halifax is calling on the municipality to grant permission for unhoused people to camp in public parks.

Sakura Saunders and Ashlee Hinchey from P.A.D.S. Community Network said they made the request Thursday in response to increasing numbers of unhoused people in Halifax and police involvement in encampments.

"We're not focusing on HRM as a housing supplier, but rather we're looking at the HRM taking away this tool of criminalization to harass and increase harm of people who find themselves homeless," said Saunders in a presentation to the municipality's community planning and economic development standing committee.

Bylaw P-600, which governs the use of municipal parks, prohibits camping in those spaces "unless otherwise posted or by permission." Saunders and Hinchey argued that council could issue special permission for unhoused people to use parks for shelter, though it was not clear what would be required to grant that authorization.

P.A.D.S. Community Network says there are more than 540 people experiencing homelessness in Halifax.

Opportunity for change

"We hear again and again people in council say, 'We can't direct the police, we can't tell the police what to do, we can't tell the police to stop harassing unhoused people,'" Saunders said. 

"But P-600 is an opportunity for the council to clarify what their position is so that it takes that tool away from the police."

Halifax police and city staff clear tents at the Peace and Friendship Park in August 2021. Some people reported being handed $237 tickets for breaking a bylaw about living on municipal land. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Last summer, Halifax Regional Police seized unhoused people's tents and shelters and clashed with protesters. Over the last few months, police have taken down structures for food storage at an encampment at a city park.

Councillors expressed concerns Thursday over granting permission to use parks as shelter, saying that unhoused people need other supports, like addictions and mental health services, that are not available in those public spaces.

"When it comes to just lifting the ban on camping in parks, I do think we need to understand there has to be criteria and regulations around that," said Coun. Patty Cuttell.

"It's not just about allowing people to camp in parks. You know, people also need to feel that they're safe. They need to feel that there's a public order, not just for those in encampments, but also for those that live around them."

'Where is the province?' 

Coun. Lisa Blackburn expressed frustration with the Nova Scotia government, pointing out that housing is the province's responsibility.

"Where is the province?" she said. "This is their job."

Victoria Levack, a spokesperson for P.A.D.S., urged the municipality to "just do the right thing" by allowing unhoused people to shelter in parks.

"What is within your [HRM's] power is to allow subsistence sheltering in parks where people have nowhere else to go," Levack said in an interview.

"Stop beating around the bush and just do what's right, regardless of whether it's hard or not, because we're at a crisis. Bylaw P-600 is the minimum — minimum — that you could do."

She said if subsistence sheltering in parks was permitted, unhoused people could spread out more, leading to less crowding and fewer conflicts.

Staff told councillors that a report on homelessness will be prepared in the coming weeks.

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