The municipality says it will start removing temporary shelters and people’s belongings next week if they’re still on city property, but the group that built the shelters is defiant, vowing to leave the structures standing in the face of the threat.
In a statement released Tuesday morning, Halifax said it’s notifying residents of the shelters that by next Tuesday, “they must vacate and remove all personal belongings.” It’s also notifying the builders of the shelters, Halifax Mutual Aid, that they must remove the structures themselves.
“A deadline date of July 13, 2021 has been given to remove the shelters – failing which, the shelters, and any personal items contained within the shelters, will be removed by the municipality on or shortly after this date without further notice,” the statement said.
The statement says that building structures — even those for people without homes — on city land is prohibited by By-Law P-600. It continues:
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. 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.
The province has been working to ensure all current occupants of the temporary shelters will be offered a temporary accommodation option that can bridge to permanent housing.
To date, five individuals who had previously been occupying a temporary shelter have accepted a housing solution.
Housing as a human right does not mean that this right can encroach upon the rights of others. With the safety of all residents as a top priority, encroachment must be acted upon by appropriate enforcement of existing laws and regulations.
Moving forward, upon being made aware of the installation of temporary shelters on municipal property, the municipality will take steps to facilitate removal or stop installation in a timely manner. It is important to remember that those experiencing homelessness can choose to accept or decline housing options and offers of support.
Municipal spokesperson Erin DiCarlo said in an email that the shelter occupants were notified via letters either posted to the shelters or hand delivered. The municipality has been unable to contact Halifax Mutual Aid, she said.
Asked whether police will remove the structures, DiCarlo said contractors will do the work. She said Tuesday’s statement doesn’t apply to tents, but “similar to temporary shelters, tents cannot remain in place indefinitely on municipal land.”
“Municipal resources are required to remove vacant temporary shelters, whereas tents are the possession of the individual and can be easily relocated by the individual,” DiCarlo said.
“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.”
Asked whether there is a risk to occupant or public safety, DiCarlo said there was a fire in one of the shelters in late June.
“There were no occupants in the temporary shelter at the time of the fire. The investigation determined a heating device had been left on, which caused the fire to break out. The temporary shelter was damaged significantly and was removed by an unknown individual/group on June 26, 2021,” DiCarlo said.
“This fire demonstrates a risk to the health and safety of the occupants and the public.”
That’s similar to the argument used to justify the eviction carried out in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park last month. There, police violently removed shelter residents and their homes, with a fence and security guards keeping journalists from watching what was happening.
This is not the first threat to remove the shelters in Halifax, but it is the most direct. Shortly after they went up early this year, Halifax Mutual Aid held a rally in Dartmouth to protest action it believed was coming from HRM. As the Halifax Examiner reported at the time:
Kevin, one of the volunteers with Halifax Mutual Aid who didn’t want to give his last name, explained the situation to reporters:
We are here today because on Saturday we put our second shelter down on our same site with the permission of the current resident on the land and … yesterday afternoon, a local street navigator sent us word that the CAO and the city were going to remove both structures. There was no mention about it being occupied or not. We fairly quickly came down to make sure nothing was happening. The two shelters are occupied. The second shelter was empty for a few hours until the second occupant, who agreed to go in, could make it there.
We don’t understand why the city is taking, seemingly, a combative role against us when only a couple days ago they showed words of support and compassion. I myself slept here overnight in a tent to make sure nothing happened.
That day, HRM chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé tweeted, from his locked account, “We want 2 work with the Mutual Aid Society regarding options going forward. HRM will never ‘evict’ homeless people from a temporary shelter nor have I ordered such a measure. We work with the homeless through our Navigator program & other social agencies to find safe solutions.”
Halifax Mutual Aid responds
As the city now prepares to evict homeless people, contrary to Dubé’s January statement, Mutual Aid Halifax released its own statement, reading in part:
We can not in good conscience put people in a worse situation than they are currently. HMA volunteers are also hestient to potentially violate occupant’s Section 7 Charter Rights, the guarantee to the right to life, liberty, and security, as it was attributed to homeless encampments in a 2015 ruling by the BC Supreme Court. Therefore, HMA does not intend to remove crisis shelters until there is no longer an urgent need for them.
HMA encourages all levels of government to pursue housing first solutions working directly with the growing homeless population. This issue affects human beings, members of our communities who deserve dignity and respect.
In that 2015 B.C. Supreme Court ruling, Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson found that the City of Abbotsford’s bylaws banning homeless people from erecting temporary shelters to sleep in parks were unconstitutional.
“I declare that portions of the bylaws passed by the City which prohibit sleeping or being in a park overnight without permits or erecting a temporary shelter without permits violate the guarantee the right to life, liberty and security of the person set out in s. 7 of the Charter,” Hinkson wrote.
Halifax Mutual Aid argues that decision applies here.
“The city’s decision to remove the shelters, is not only unethical but it’s unconstitutional,” Campbell McClintock, external spokesperson for Halifax Mutual Aid, said in an interview Tuesday.
“It’s unethical to remove somebody’s housing. The people occupying those shelters are living in them. That’s where they wake up, it’s where they go to sleep. And it’s unconstitutional because section 7 of the Charter states that everybody is essentially entitled to that shelter and that has been defended in a 2015 Supreme Court case in B.C., specifically about people camping in parks.”
McClintock said the organization has been in talks with a lawyer about challenging HRM’s bylaw, but those discussions are in early stages.
There are currently 15 shelters up in the municipality, all occupied, McClintock said, with another 21 people on the waiting list. (DiCarlo said there are 11 shelters.) The Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia places the number of people currently homeless in HRM at 352.
Of the five former shelter occupants HRM said “have accepted a housing solution,” McClintock said two have apartments, one is in a group home, one is in a hostel, and one is in a hotel. He said the person living in a hotel doesn’t consider themselves housed.
McClintock said the “temporary accommodation option that can bridge to permanent housing” referred to in the city statement is a two-week stay in a hotel room.
“We are not sure what happens after two weeks and we’re also not sure how the hotel classifies as more sufficient housing than the shelters,” McClintock said.
There are restrictions on people living in hotels, McClintock noted, citing his experience as a shelter worker supporting people in hotels.
“A house is somewhere you can hang up your coat, you can lounge out, you can invite visitors over. With the hotel, not only are folks not able to have visitors, but there are frequent visits from police officers, and there’s a very heavy surveillance. You have to go through the lobby and the hotel staff to do anything here,” McClintock said.
The shelters, by contrast, have allowed people living in them a sense of home, McClintock said.
“I think it’s stressful for a lot of occupants that the city is pressuring them in this way and with so much uncertainty,” he said.
“What people have been able to cultivate living in these shelters is a sense of autonomy and a sense of community and a sense of place.”
The plan to place the shelter occupants in hotels is one to “invisiblize” Halifax’s homeless population, McClintock said. Halifax Mutual Aid doesn’t have a specific plan yet, but it’s not going to remove the shelters.
“As far as we’re concerned, the city or the province has no right to remove the shelters so they shall remain,” McClintock said.
Savage says occupants will be offered more than two weeks in a hotel
Mayor Mike Savage, in an interview Tuesday, said the provincial government is offering more than a two-week stay. He said he’s been told people will be offered different options based on their situation, with a hotel as a back-up if there’s nothing else available.
“A two-week solution was never going to make any sense,” Savage said. “We’re not just interested in getting people out and then moving the sheds. We want to find supportive housing for people who need it, and work with them to do that and work with the province as well.”
Asked about the timing of the eviction, Savage said the municipality didn’t want to remove the sheds during the winter or during the peak of the third wave of the pandemic.
“I think people knew that eventually this was going to have to be dealt with. You can’t just set up housing on properties and parks and places where everybody has a right to be and share,” he said.
“If the city of Halifax or the Province of Nova Scotia put these sheds out and suggested people live in them, we would be we would be accused of treating people in an inhumane way.”
Savage wouldn’t say definitively whether the police will be involved in the eviction.
“We deliberately didn’t go in with any kind of force today. It was community workers who generally know people who are living on the street who have given the notice,” he said.
“Our hope is that it’s not going to come to any kind of forcible eviction.”