Nova Scotia

Project to build 20 emergency winter shelters at N.S. churches now complete

Well Engineered Inc., the manufacturing company contracted by the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth, says it completed the project in about six weeks.

Company says final 2 structures in Bedford installed on Monday

These are two of the crisis shelters that were built by Well Engineered Inc. and set up at a church property in Bridgewater, N.S. (Well Engineered Inc.)

Twenty temporary shelters where Nova Scotians experiencing homelessness can spend the winter have now been installed at church grounds across the province. 

The Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth began fundraising to build emergency shelters late last year in an effort to help address the province's growing housing crisis.

The manufacturing company Well Engineered Inc. was tasked with getting the job done by Christmas Eve.

Neil Wolthers said his team was able to deliver 16 structures by the deadline, and complete the entire project in about six weeks. The final two structures were set up in Bedford on Monday. 

"Where every single building that we installed and built would be taking a person out of a tent in the middle of winter, we had quite a bit of pressure to keep things moving," Wolthers told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon.

Seventeen of the shelters, which are eight by eight feet, are located on church properties in the Halifax region. Two are in Bridgewater and one is in Amherst.

It was no easy task to get the structures built quickly, said Wolthers, adding that his team dealt with supply issues and other logistical problems almost every day. 

"Our team is a critical-thinking and problem-solving team, that's what we like to do," he said. "So in each case, we addressed the problem and figured out the best way forward with the schedule at top of mind." 

He also credits municipal staff with getting building permits approved quicker than normal. 

Each structure cost just over $10,700 to build, Wolthers said. They will be set up until the end of May, at which time the archdiocese has said it will put them into storage until they're needed again.

Listen to Neil Wolthers full interview with CBC Radio's Maritime Noon

The shelters include an overhead light, twin bed, heater and USB charger. There's no running water or plumbing inside.

The archdiocese said in December that it would be working with social services, community organizations and street navigators to determine who will move into the shelters.

The churches are also providing support and services to people throughout the winter.

Eric Jonsson, program co-ordinator with Navigator Street Outreach, said temporary solutions like this are needed to tackle the complex problem of homelessness, especially during the cold winter months.

The company built 20 shelters that were set up at 12 different church locations across the province. The shelters are 8 by 8 feet. (Well Engineered Inc.)

"We need everybody kind of working together to come up with these [ingenious] solutions to homelessness but also the number of people sleeping outside is not kind of a linear, zero-sum game," he said.

At last estimate there were about 400 people experiencing homelessness in the Halifax area, but Jonsson said that number is always in flux and difficult to pin down.

He said providing 400 affordable apartments to people isn't going to end homelessness overnight. 

"Every time you house one person, every time you get one more person off the street doesn't mean there's one less person who's homeless," Jonsson said.

"It's such a fluid and ever-changing number that we need lots more solutions than just housing the 20 people I could find in a park, or the 50 people at a shelter."

Street navigator Eric Jonsson says the Roman Catholic Church deserves credit for its initiative, but more permanent housing solutions are needed. (Dave Laughlin/CBC )

The Halifax Regional Municipality is also building modular units for 64 people in Halifax and Dartmouth, but a recent staff report said the project is a million dollars over budget and people likely won't be able to move in until mid-March. 

The small structures that Wolthers's team built are a first for his company, and he said he's learned a lot in the past six weeks. 

"There are lots of cases where the folks that are living in the shelters are working full time," Wolthers said. "And to me, that's offensive to work a full-time job and not be able to afford a place to live. That's pretty wild."

But Wolthers also believes that being able to build 20 warm places for people to live this winter is proof that solutions are possible. 

"If somebody has the will to solve it, it will be solved," Wolthers said.

"If you look at the diocese, they decided that they were going to have 20 people and they housed the 20 people, basically in the timeframe that we set out to do it within."

With files from CBC Radio's Maritime Noon