HALIFAX, N.S. — The volunteer group responsible for setting up temporary shelters throughout Halifax Regional Municipality says city officials are violating a section of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms with their plans to remove the shelters by as early as next week.
In a statement Tuesday, HRM says it will be giving notice to people occupying the shelters “that they must locate and remove all personal belongings” by July 13.
The notice also gives the same deadline for the shelters to be removed from municipal property as they are not permitted under bylaw P-600.
If the deadline isn’t met, the shelters, along with any personal items left within the shelters, will be removed by the municipality on or shortly after next Tuesday.
“The municipality’s approach to homeless encampments centres on treating people experiencing homelessness in our public spaces with dignity while working to find ways to best support them within our capacity and scope as a municipality,” HRM said in its statement.
“From the outset, the approach has been to allow occupants of homeless encampments to remain until adequate housing has been identified and offered, or until the health and safety of the occupants or public are at risk. This approach does not condone or support the installation of infrastructure associated with encampments.”
Mayor Mike Savage said HRM has approached the temporary shelters “with a human rights view from the beginning,” by allowing shelter occupants to stay in the shelters during the winter and the COVID-19 pandemic until a “more permanent solution” became available.
“In some cases, that could be immediate and in other cases it might mean a hotel, but it’s not two weeks, it’s until we have facilities for them that meet their needs,” he said.
Savage noted HRM’s street navigators and the province’s support workers have been working together to establish relationships with the shelter occupants to discuss alternative housing options for them.
HRM violating Charter, group says
Since setting up the first shelter in January, Halifax Mutual Aid has repeatedly voiced its concerns for the people staying in the shelters once they are taken down by the municipality.
In a phone interview Tuesday, HMA spokesman Campbell McClintock said it seemed “inevitable” that HRM would step in to remove the shelters some day and the group was trying to “push that back as much as possible” until a permanent housing solution was offered to the shelter occupants.
McClintock added he’s “skeptical” that the people living in the temporary shelters will be given more permanent housing.
“(HRM’s) statement is very harmful and we don’t see why now all of a sudden it’s urgent to the city that these shelters be removed,” he said.
“They had their compassionate approach and now all of a sudden, they’re threatening something that is essentially violating Section 7 of the Charter. … The reason that violates Section 7 of the Charter is because everybody has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived of those rights.”
HMA said it doesn’t plan to remove the temporary shelters until there is “no longer an urgent need for them.”
More than 300 people experiencing homelessness in HRM
According to the latest figures from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, 352 people are currently homeless in HRM and about 75 per cent of those people have been experiencing homelessness for six months or more.
Since Dec. 8, 2020, 497 people experiencing homelessness have been housed, according to the province’s Deparment of Community Services.
However, McClintock said homeless shelters in HRM remain “consistently at capacity” and the group continues receiving calls from people experiencing homelessness for the first time amid the pandemic.
As of mid-June, HMA’s temporary shelters were occupied by 15 people and a dog, with another 21 people on the wait-list for temporary shelter access. McClintock said those numbers have more or less remained unchanged.
The Chronicle Herald requested an interview with someone from the Department of Community Services, but it was declined.
Instead, department spokeswoman Carley Sampson said in an emailed statement the province has worked – and will continue to work – with HRM’s street navigators and community agencies “to ensure that every person staying in a tiny shelter has access to appropriate supports.”
“There are currently 12 people in the tiny shelters. All will be offered a place to stay while housing support workers work with them to secure permanent, safe and stable housing. We will have a better idea in the coming days of how many will choose to accept our support,” Sampson wrote.
Sampson noted that in mid-May, the provincial government announced $3.5 million in funding for the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia to purchase properties in the Halifax area that will provide housing for people with the highest needs who might otherwise remain homeless. She added this is in addition to another $20.5-million investment in the Integrated Action Plan to Address Homelessness.
But McClintock said giving shelter occupants the option of temporarily moving into hotel rooms is a “Band-Aid” solution that is “undignified” and makes individuals “much more subject to policing.”
‘It can’t last forever,’ mayor says
In late June, City of Toronto crews, backed by police, moved to evict people experiencing homelessness from a homeless encampment at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods park.
In a tweet, the City of Toronto said the encampment residents were being offered “safe, indoor space, with access to meals, showers and laundry, harm reduction, physical and mental health supports, and a housing worker,” but many criticized the heavy police presence used to evict the encampment residents.
All individuals experiencing homelessness in this encampment, estimated at 20 to 25 people, are being offered safe, indoor space, with access to meals, showers and laundry, harm reduction, physical and mental health supports, and a housing worker. — City of Toronto (@cityoftoronto) June 22, 2021
McClintock said HMA worries a similar approach will be taken by HRM come July 13.
“That was a very violent act by the state that directly made people who were already vulnerable increasingly more vulnerable,” McClintock said.
“It was not a helpful or supportive gesture, it was very harmful, so we’re very concerned that that same harm will be caused to the occupants of the shelters here.”
When asked what the municipality will do if shelter occupants refuse to move out of the temporary shelters in HRM by next Tuesday, Savage said he doesn’t want to “prejudge where we might go with them.”
“We’ve deliberately given some time for people to get used to the idea of talking to the navigators, to the support workers,” he added.
“I don’t want to jump ahead to what the next step is. We clearly did not bring in police or forcibly remove people today because they’re human beings first and foremost and want to discuss with them what their options are, but it can’t last forever.”