Describing it as the best of a set of bad options, councillors are moving ahead with a revised version of the staff proposal to create designated tent sites for unhoused Haligonians.
But significant questions remain about how and when people currently living in municipal parks will be asked to leave, or whether they’ll be forcibly removed.
“I think it’s the least worst option,” Coun. Waye Mason said on Tuesday.
“This is starting to bring a little bit of order, to enable us to better provide human rights-based protections and services to folks who find themselves in this critical bit of need that no one should find themselves in.”
As the Halifax Examiner reported on Monday, the staff proposal was for tent sites at 16 city parks — five long-term and 11 overnight — with a maximum of four tents per site. At the overnight sites, people would only be allowed to stay from 8pm to 8am.
That was councillors’ main concern with the plan during their virtual meeting on Tuesday.
“In my opinion, having overnight camping and then having someone — police or bylaw, whomever — shake that tent and say, ‘OK you’ve got to leave’ at 8am is problematic,” said Coun. Tony Mancini.
“It’s a potential for conflict to occur.”
Mason agreed, and moved an amendment to cut the overnight idea from the plan, and have staff look at which of those parks could host long-term tent sites “to ensure adequate supply to meet demand.” That amendment passed.
Deputy Mayor Pam Lovelace was concerned about a lack of an enforcement plan in the staff proposal, wondering how the municipality planned to move people from the parks they’re in now to the designated ones.
“We don’t have the right to exclude someone from a park. We don’t have the right at all to walk in and say, ‘I’m sorry you’re tent No. 5, you have to leave. Oh, you won’t leave? We’re going to call the police.’ And there’s a conflict,” Lovelace said.
“I am totally against more conflict, totally unnecessary conflict.”
Maggie MacDonald, the executive director of parks and recreation, said the municipality would be focused on education and “voluntary enforcement,” but didn’t have any sort of plan to share with council. She said there’d be documents made to inform park residents on the rules and available sites.
Mason brought a successful amendment to address the enforcement concern, noting residents clearly told councillors they don’t want police involved in any enforcement. The amendment directs staff to return to council with a “a timeline and a plan for supporting the transition, education, and implementation that is led and delivered by civilian HRM staff.”
Lovelace was also concerned about a lack of consultation with the people most affect — those actually living in parks.
“They’re not in this report. Their voices are not in this report. Certainly we have voices from people who were unhoused, but the most important people that we’re trying to help, we haven’t heard from them,” Lovelace said.
That was one of the central criticisms of the staff report from those working with unhoused people, like P.A.D.S. Community Network, which said staff didn’t speak with a single person living in a city park.
Max Chauvin, parks and recreation special projects manager and one of the authors of the report, said he had conversations with “two people that have identified that they have lived experience with sleeping rough.”
Chauvin suggested a committee of people with that experience, which was part of the recommendation to council, could be up and running via the United Way next month.
The majority of councillors were in favour of the staff proposal, while acknowledging its imperfections, but Coun. Trish Purdy was wholly opposed to the plan.
“I just want to say how disappointed I am that after all this time this is the best solution that we can come up with: more encampments on municipal parkland close to schools, trails, it’s very disappointing,” Purdy said.
“It’s not sustainable. It doesn’t work. I’ve never read an article on any encampment site across North America that has a good outcome.”
Purdy brought forward an amendment to “convene an advisory panel” to identify “best practice housing solutions for our homeless population.” Lovelace called the amendment “redundant,” as HRM basically did this with the Housing and Homelessness Partnership a few years ago. The motion failed.
Lovelace had an amendment, too. She wants chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the provincial government on the response to the housing crisis. After Dubé said that work was already underway as part of the renegotiation of the service exchange between municipalities and the province, Lovelace modified her amendment to be a request for a staff report. That passed.
Here’s the full motion council passed on Tuesday:
1. Direct the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) to continue to support the province and other partners to ensure individuals have safe, supportive and affordable housing,
2. Direct the CAO to continue efforts to increase availability of affordable housing as described in the body of the staff report dated April 28, 2022,
3. Direct the CAO to formalize criteria and locations for the designation of overnight sheltering sites in parks consistent with the criteria and locations described in the body of the staff report dated April 28, 2022, with the removal of the one-night camping sites and addition of those sites to the list of potential long-term camping sites, if required and possible, to ensure adequate supply to meet demand to be brought back to council for consideration.
4. Direct the CAO to continue to review options to add non-park sites to inventory of outdoor sites available for overnight sheltering,
5. Authorize the Chief Administrative Officer to negotiate and enter into a contribution agreement with the United Way to convene a lived experience committee to advise staff, and
6. Direct the CAO to return to Council with a subsequent report with additional analysis and recommendations for actions, including a timeline and a plan for supporting the transition, education, and implementation that is led and delivered by civilian HRM staff.
7. (Wording imprecise) A staff report on directing the CAO to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the provincial government “defining the roles of each order of government and specific actions to support and prevent homelessness and Halifax.”
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Listening to the mayor and councillors takes a toll on my mental health and I have to take breaks from them. So I thank you, Zane, for doing such a good job reporting on their shenanigans. I don’t know how you do it but I always know I can skip the meetings and catch up later via your excellent reports. Seriously, thank you.
Mayor Savage should tell the public if he wants to take responsibility for housing from the province and then hold a binding referendum on the matter. Dube was coy on the subject and refused to be clear and honest on what is being negotiated. We need to stay away from a clear provincial responsibility.