The municipality is calling in the police to kick unhoused people out of a park, stoking fears, even among councillors, of a repeat of the chaos of last August.

Halifax regional council held a special virtual meeting on Tuesday with one item on the agenda: “Homelessness in Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM).” There was no motion or staff report attached, and chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé told councillors that’s because he wasn’t looking for direction.

“We are not requesting today a decision of regional council, but rather we are updating you on our activities to date, which have been consistent with your direction and advising you of the current situation, expected next steps, and potential implications. We felt this would be particularly important considering recent developments at Meagher Park,” Dubé said.

Tents fill most of Meagher Park, where unhoused people in HRM have been camping since mid-August. The site has been informally renamed “People’s Park” by volunteers and residents. Photo: Leslie Amminson

Max Chauvin, the city’s “special projects manager” on homelessness, gave a presentation outlining the situation with the housing crisis in Halifax, and how the municipality got to this point.

In June, council approved a version of Chauvin’s plan to designate a handful of sanctioned tent sites, parks where people would be allowed to sleep. The plan relied on civilian bylaw officers and city staff informing people that they couldn’t stay where they were, and then “voluntary compliance.” If people refused, the plan was to move to “involuntary compliance,” meaning the police would move them.

On July 5, HRM announced Meagher Park — the most popular unsanctioned tent site, dubbed People’s Park — was closed. The municipality gave people there until July 17 to get out, and then it would fix up the space at the corner of Dublin and Chebucto streets. That deadline came and went.

Voluntary compliance isn’t happening at the park, even among residents of the park who previously said they’d move.

“Residents of the park have expressed that they are no longer willing to leave,” Chauvin said.

Chauvin said the occupation of the park is having a “significant mental health impact” on neighbours.

“People have listened to people being beaten, screaming for help. And yet when police arrive, people aren’t feeling comfortable enough to be cooperative because they’re afraid of retaliation, or of what the police will do to them,” Chauvin said.

“We have people who have reported to us that they’ve developed PTSD from those experiences.”

Chauvin also said there are health and safety concerns, with a large rat population in the area, along with needles and bodily fluids.

“There is on all sides a loss of trust in the police, government, and elected officials,” Chauvin said.

“On all sides, everybody feels that they have been left out without support and without safety and are really struggling.”

Part of the reason, according to Chauvin, that people aren’t leaving is a number of protest groups who’ve taken to protecting the park. He was talking about Mutual Aid Halifax, the volunteer organization building emergency shelters, and P.A.D.S. Community Network, an organization advocating for affordable housing*. But he’s also talking about members of the so-called Freedom Convoy and the affiliated provincial political party, Nova Scotians United.

“Involvement by activist groups who simply don’t give a hoot about our unhoused neighbours has changed the water on the beans for me,” Coun. Lisa Blackburn said.

“We now have groups involved who … have their agendas, and only a desire to advance those agendas. Activist groups on opposite sides of the spectrum, each fighting for their rights to occupy the park. Well, enough. The park is closed. The conditions there are abysmal. We are one heavy rainstorm away from a cholera outbreak as far as I’m concerned.”

Coun. Becky Kent, who was among the first of the group to express remorse about August 18, agreed.

“These agents who are suggesting to us and suggesting every day on the Twitterverse and every day in the public that they’re they’re campaigning for these folks who are homeless are there for their own agenda. We are seeing it now,” Kent said.

Kent said the municipality has no option other than to “bring this to a head.”

“The facts are we now know that if we move into, which I believe we have to, resolving this situation, this particular park with police engagement, it’s not going to be pretty,” she said.

The potential for protest is moving Maggie MacDonald, executive director of parks and recreation, to call in the cops.

“The current residents have indicated that now they’re unwilling to leave and protesters have indicated both in indirect discussion and through social media their intent to block efforts by HRM to vacate the park as such the next steps under the endorsed approach would be to ask Halifax Regional Police for assistance in vacating,” MacDonald said.

Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella told councillors that if MacDonald makes the call, the police will make a plan and then carry it out.

“We’re going to take a measured approach, we’re going to evaluate the situation and the impacts and the outcomes,” Kinsella said.

“We truly want those that are experiencing homelessness to have an opportunity to be housed. We also are cognizant of the fact that there are other factors at play and and other individuals and groups may be that may try to become involved in this situation.”

Kinsella said if necessary, “the RCMP are willing participants,” as are Cape Breton Regional Police and Truro Police.

“All the municipal police services will come and help if required,” he said.

A Halifax Regional Police officer with no name tag pepper sprayed protesters who were sitting on a wall helping others who’d already been pepper sprayed on Aug. 18, 2021. Photo: Zane Woodford

Coun. Cathy Deagle Gammon worried about a repeat of last August.

“I’m feeling really awfully nervous about this,” Deagle Gammon said.

Chauvin said one person told him that protesters will defend the park, and enforcement will be “August 18 again, or worse.”

“Well, that’s just sad, isn’t it?” Deagle Gammon said.

Deagle Gammon wondered aloud whether having the conversation publicly would trigger a bigger protest response at the park.

“We’ve tried to be as clear and transparent as we can that hasn’t resulted in a better outcome in terms of willingness to vacate the park,” MacDonald said in response. “It is possible that the public discussions may may spur increased efforts.”

Correction, August 2: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized P.A.D.S.’ role.

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Zane Woodford

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. In my humble opinion this homeless problem was created long ago by lack of action of the predecessors of this same group who are presently trying to solve this dilemma. Or at least going through the motions.

    So now we have a group made up of people who are financially stable, diverse in backgrounds,education and domestic situations who cannot easily relate to the people affected.The same old sore has festered and rears its head anew but the same old attitudes still exist. Who has the needle to lance this old boil and relieve the pain and pressure.

    This is a big mess comprised of many little messes. When will they come to the realization that each little mess must be isolated and be cleaned up individually to succeed?  What they are doing is herding people around and trying to concentrate them in certain areas thus control them. All this while they feign to avoid public scrutiny. They deflect blame and  deny knowledge of facts and plead lack of control and responsibility with regularity.

    As long as they continue to label this group together as “homeless” and fail to realize and treat the many different facets of this problem as well as the many different types of people who have fallen and created a new style of Gypsy it will continue.

    But at the end of the day some people don’t want the help offered.

    There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
    A race that can’t stay still;
    So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
    And they roam the world at will.
    They range the field and they rove the flood,
    And they climb the mountain’s crest;
    Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
    And they don’t know how to rest.

    If they just went straight they might go far;
    They are strong and brave and true;
    But they’re always tired of the things that are,
    And they want the strange and new.
    They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
    What a deep mark I would make!”
    So they chop and change, and each fresh move
    Is only a fresh mistake.

    And each forgets, as he strips and runs
    With a brilliant, fitful pace,
    It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
    Who win in the lifelong race.
    And each forgets that his youth has fled,
    Forgets that his prime is past,
    Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
    In the glare of the truth at last.

    He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
    He has just done things by half.
    Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
    And now is the time to laugh.
    Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
    He was never meant to win;
    He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
    He’s a man who won’t fit in.

    Robert Service

  2. HRM loses substantial tax revenue every time a developer buys livable older homes, demolishes them and leaves the site bare until interest rates and labour supply are favorable for investment in new construction.
    Examples abound. This is a perverse incentive to destroy habitable property. Why not maintain property tax on such properties at the same rate as when they were occupied by tax-paying or rent-paying residents?