There are more people in Halifax without housing than ever before, and the municipality would need thousands of new apartments to fix the problem.
A new point-in-time count, conducted by the Navigator Street Outreach Program, found that on April 7, there were 586 people in the municipality without a safe, permanent home.
“There’s so many people homeless, way more than we’ve ever seen,” program coordinator Eric Jonsson said during a Zoom panel on Tuesday.
Jonsson led the count by speaking with people living in shelters, short-term transition housing, hotels, tents, emergency shelters, and the Burnside jail, offering them $20 to participate. The count covered peninsular Halifax, downtown Dartmouth, Dartmouth Crossing, Clayton Park, Spryfield, Bedford, and Sackville. The number does not include people couch surfing, living in hotels they’re paying for on their own, living in unsafe domestic situations, or in secluded rural areas.
The last such count, conducted in 2018, found 220 people. While Jonsson said they were able to find more people in suburban and other locations this time thanks to the work of community organizations, there are still a “huge” number of unhoused people not accounted for.
Of the 586 people counted, 195 were living in hotels, 215 in non-profits’ facilities, 91 in tents or shelters in encampments, and 85 in jail. Men accounted for 65% of those counted, women 33% and gender non-conforming people 2%. Fifteen percent of people were 60 or older, and the average age was 43.
Charlene Gagnon worked as a data analyst on the count, and said there are more seniors unhoused than ever before. Many are being renovicted, Gagnon said.
“A lot of folks who were stably housed for a long time are losing their housing now,” Gagnon said.
Gagnon said there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, noting many people aren’t uncomfortable in shelters.
“There’s no silver bullet answer here for this issue,” Gagnon said.
Marginalized people were over-represented in the count: 22% of people identified as Indigenous (compared to 4% of the population); 15% as Black (compared to 3.8% of the population); and 15% as 2SLGBTQ+. Additionally, 63% of people self-identified as having mental health challenges, 59% reported substance use, and 37% were physically disabled.
Meghan Oliver, housing support program manager at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, highlighted that a disproportionate number of Indigenous people on the list are former youth in care. That means there needs to be more culturally-specific care for Indigenous youth coming out of care, she said.
As part of the presentation, the panelists highlighted the amount of money being spent on hotels, and the increasing expense and difficulty of housing people this way. The government is spending up to $207,000 weekly on hotels through non-profits, they said.
Sheri Lecker, executive director of Adsum, said her organization alone has invoiced the municipal and provincial governments for $967,213 worth of hotel stays.
“Now, those persons would not have had a safe place to stay otherwise, but that’s the conflict inherent in this approach is that we have housing or shelter or a hotel room that’s not secure, and it’s costing a lot of money,” Lecker said.
“So what are we doing?”
Lecker said the government should be helping non-profits buy up existing housing stock to stop the cycle of renovictions that means time and money is being spent housing the same people over and over again. The money currently going to hotels could be going to those efforts.
Jonsson had a similar example: you buy someone a sleeping bag for $50 and it helps them for a few nights. But if you buy enough sleeping bags, that could’ve been a damage deposit on an apartment. Likewise, a few weeks of hotel rooms could’ve been a down payment on a house.
At the same time, opening hundreds of new units tomorrow wouldn’t solve the problem either.
“Homelessness is not a one to one, kind of zero sum game,” Jonsson said, noting that when new shelter beds or modular units become available, people flock to them.
“If you want to go from 586 people who are homeless to zero, you need a lot more than 586 new apartments. You need probably three or four times that.”
All panellists agreed there needs to be a plan, and it’s going to require all levels of government working together with non-profits.
“We need to get over our egos, we need to get over ourselves, and we need to do it now, not in three months time and not some announcement that’s coming today and another one coming next week,” Lecker said.
“We need a plan, we need numbers, we need dates, and we need to be held to account. Anything short of that, and we’re going to be here next year.”
A final report, which will also incorporate a series of focus groups conducted after the count, is coming this summer. The slide deck from Tuesday’s panel is available here, and the full presentation is on YouTube here.