Following an abrupt end to hotel stays for unhoused residents, the group of volunteers supporting people living in a municipal park is calling on the municipality to publicly declare a moratorium on tent and shelter evictions from municipal parks.

A month ago this weekend, Halifax Regional Police and city staff evicted people living in tents and emergency shelters from multiple parks and deployed riot gear and pepper spray on protesters outside the former Halifax Memorial Library.

In the weeks since, regional councillors and the mayor have gone from outright denying the facts on the ground to showing some remorse for what happened on Aug. 18 and voting to spend $500,000 on temporary fixes.

Tents and emergency shelters are seen in August in the park at the corner of Dublin Street and Chebucto Road, which residents and activists there are now calling People’s Park. — Photo: Zane Woodford

But this week, reality is up for debate once again after people who were staying at a Dartmouth hotel paid for by HRM found out at the last minute that they were getting displaced.

The municipality booked 10 rooms at the Comfort Inn in Dartmouth about two weeks ago, and whatever arrangement it had with the hotel came to an end on Wednesday.

Drew Moore, a volunteer with P.A.D.S. (Permanent, Accessible, Dignified, and Safer) Housing Network, said residents only found out on Tuesday, when staff at the hotel told them they’d have to pack up the next day.

P.A.D.S. is the volunteer group working with people living at Meagher Park at the corner of Chebucto Road and Dublin Street, now being called People’s Park.

Moore said the municipality encouraged people from the park to move into the hotel. There were up to 15 people living in the park two weeks ago, and it was eventually down to eight residents.

“The understanding that we were under, based on correspondence from people from the municipality, was that it was an indefinite stay until something more stable, something more permanent could be found for people who were unhoused,” Moore said in an interview.

“The hotels, we always knew that that was not a great option, that wasn’t a stable option, and now we’re finding out just how precarious of an option that was.”

Victoria Walton, who was first to report on the hotel situation for The Coast, spoke to the hotel’s manager:

The general manager of the Comfort Inn, Mary Vandergrift, told the city she had 10 rooms available, but only for 14 days.

“When the city called me two weeks ago to book them, that’s all the time I told them I had, was two weeks,” Vandergrift told The Coast in a phone call Tuesday afternoon. “They just said, ‘OK, thanks for confirming that that’s all you had.’”

Vandergrift, when asked if she knew where the residents would be going next, sounded frustrated the city hadn’t given her an update lately. “I hadn’t heard from them for a couple of days,” she says. “I understood it was all taken care of.”

When the soon-to-be-evicted residents approached hotel staff after learning they’d have to leave, Vandergrift was taken off guard. “I was surprised when no one knew, I was shocked.” She says she reached out to HRM but hasn’t heard back yet. “I sent them an email today, it’s ridiculous.”

Emails obtained by the Halifax Examiner show chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé knew by Monday that the arrangement with the hotel was up on Wednesday, writing that the hotel was “not prepared to renew the arrangement we had with them beyond September 15.”

On Twitter, Coun. Waye Mason wrote that “staff thought they had a long-term deal but the … hotel ended the deal.” Mayor Mike Savage made similar comments to CBC.

The Examiner asked the municipality’s communications department a set of specific questions: What was HRM’s arrangement with the Comfort Inn? Was it a two-week stay with an option to renew? What did HRM pay for? When did HRM find out the hotel rooms were booked from Sept. 15 on? Is HRM working to find another hotel?

Spokesperson Brynn Budden didn’t answer those questions*. In response, Budden wrote that, “In working with volunteers at Meagher Park, the municipality recognized the need to relocate individuals from that park.”

“Given the urgency of the situation, the municipality then took immediate and unprecedented steps to secure hotel rooms and engage professional service providers to facilitate placing individuals in the hotel.”

Budden said there were eight people staying in the hotel as of last weekend. One person found a better housing option, a couple was asked to leave by the hotel, and there were five left as of Wednesday, Budden said. Of those five, three “have been offered and accepted alternate accommodations by service providers;” one “has their own accommodations;” and one “is not engaging with any of the options available at this time.”

“Professional service providers are continuing to work with those experiencing homelessness at Meagher Park,” Budden wrote.

“The municipality continues to collaborate with community partners to identify hotels that have availability and are willing to accept residents from this site.”

The Examiner re-asked the questions about the hotel arrangement. We’ll update this story with the response.

Update — Friday, Sept. 17:

On Friday afternoon, Budden provided a full response to the Examiner’s questions, indicating that the municipality only had a limited-time booking at the hotel, not any kind of indefinite agreement:

On September 3, the hotel confirmed that 10 rooms could be booked until September 15 and the municipality advised the hotel that it would follow up to confirm details regarding its request for additional rooms and an extended booking. The hotel confirmed the booking through to Sept. 15, and did not indicate that an extended booking would not be possible.

Budden’s full response has been added to the end of this story.

Meanwhile, HRM announced in a news release Thursday that Erica Fleck, the Assistant Chief of Emergency Management, “has been assigned to a three-month role leading the emergency response to homelessness for the municipality.” Fleck will work to spend that $500,000 approved by council. HRM is also hiring a “Social Policy Strategist.”

On Saturday, P.A.D.S. is planning a rally for 11am at Halifax City Hall to call on HRM to announce a moratorium on evictions of people living in tents and emergency shelters.

Moore noted there have been a handful of other evictions since Aug. 18, like one the Examiner reported on at the Halifax Common, and that leaves residents feeling uneasy.

“People who are sheltering there are under constant fear of not knowing when they might be evicted from basically the only thing they have left,” Moore said.

“What the municipality can do is publicly declare a moratorium on these evictions until housing can be found for folks who are unhoused.”

The full response from HRM spokesperson Brynn Budden:

Q: What was HRM’s arrangement with the Comfort Inn?
A:
In August, municipal staff initiated an extensive search of available hotel space in Halifax for temporary accommodations.

In late August, Comfort Inn expressed a willingness to accommodate an extended booking for roughly 75 rooms.

Before proceeding with the arrangement, the municipality first needed confirmation from professional service providers regarding their capacity to provide support, as well as the feasibility of the proposed site.

Work was underway with professional service providers to assess the feasibility of Comfort Inn when the municipality was notified by volunteers at Meagher Park that there was a need to relocate individuals from that park. Given the urgency of the situation, the municipality then took immediate and unprecedented steps to secure hotel rooms and engage professional service providers to facilitate placing individuals in the hotel. Professional service providers indicated 10 rooms would be required to address the immediate need at the park. Because Comfort Inn had previously expressed interest in working with the municipality on an extended booking for up to 75 rooms, they were contacted to see if they would be willing to immediately block 10 rooms for a two-week period.

On September 3, the hotel confirmed that 10 rooms could be booked until September 15 and the municipality advised the hotel that it would follow up to confirm details regarding its request for additional rooms and an extended booking. The hotel confirmed the booking through to Sept. 15, and did not indicate that an extended booking would not be possible.

On September 8, the municipality followed up with Comfort Inn to confirm the desire for an extended booking. At this point, a professional service provider had expressed interest in managing this site, which was a requirement by the municipality before entering into an arrangement with the hotel. The municipality was then advised by the hotel that no rooms would be available past September 15.

The municipality then immediately worked to identify alternative locations for the individuals at the hotel. All individuals at the Comfort Inn were offered alternative accommodations prior to September 15.

Q: Was it a two-week stay with an option to renew?
A:
Because Comfort Inn had previously expressed interest in working with the municipality on an extended booking for up to 75 rooms, they were contacted to see if they would be willing to immediately block 10 rooms for a two week period. The municipality advised the hotel it would follow up to confirm details regarding its request for additional rooms and an extended booking. Before proceeding with the arrangement, the municipality first needed confirmation from professional service providers regarding their capacity to provide support, as well as the feasibility of the proposed site.

Q: What did HRM pay for?
A:
An invoice is being prepared by the hotel for 10 rooms, over a two week period, at their standard daily rate.

Q: When did HRM find out the hotel rooms were booked from Sept. 15 on?
A:
On September 8, the municipality was advised by the hotel that no rooms would be available past September 15.


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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. The tip of the secrecy iceberg at HRM. Savage and Dube are big on keeping inconvenient facts away from the gaze of council and the public and playing the media for mugs.