Metro Turning Point. Photo: http://moshhalifax.ca

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Amid a public health emergency that relies on people keeping six feet apart to halt the spread of COVID-19, a team is putting on a full court press to deal with one group of citizens.

Housing Nova Scotia, the Halifax Regional Municipality, the YMCA, and agencies such as the Salvation Army and Shelter Nova Scotia are trying to reduce by 50% the number of homeless men and women crowding into emergency shelters.

“Those who are in a shelter or without shelter cannot self-isolate,” wrote Meghan Laing, Chair of Shelter Nova Scotia in a letter published on the website yesterday. “With large numbers in small spaces that is impossible. We are scrambling to find temporary alternatives to overcrowded conditions”.

Earlier this week, Housing Nova Scotia opened a temporary emergency shelter for the homeless at the Needham Community Recreation Centre in the North End of Halifax. Needham has a large multipurpose room as well as a kitchen area. It’s currently closed to the public, as are all recreation centres. Another shelter opened last evening in a Halifax school and a third shelter will eventually begin operating out of a YMCA once more staff can be recruited.

Sources say staffing is proving to be a significant challenge and more vulnerable people have showed up looking for a place to stay at the pop-up shelters than the original clients who were re-located from the permanent shelters.

“I can confirm that there some recreation centres being used as alternate housing, and this is being coordinated by various service providers,” said Maggie-Jane Spray, a communications advisor with HRM.

“Staff have been working with the shelter community, HRM, YMCA, and Mobile Outreach’s Street Health to create space to allow for social distancing for our homeless clients,” said Krista Higdon, a spokesperson for the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing.  “We have also secured temporary spaces for individuals experiencing homelessness with underlying health issues. We are working with the community to create safer spaces for people experiencing homelessness and for the staff who are supporting them.”

Although the province won’t confirm, some people with underlying health issues have been placed in motel rooms. Neither the province nor HRM are willing to say how many new beds are needed to achieve the goal of a 50% reduction at existing shelters such as the Salvation Army Men’s Hostel, Out Of The Cold, and Metro Turning Point. Sources at agencies that provide shelter suggest that target could be in the range of 75 additional beds.

Metro Turning Point is a 55-bed men’s shelter operated by Shelter NS. The opening of the new shelters means instead of 55 people sharing two rooms, there are now 30 men sharing two dormitory-style rooms.  Meanwhile, COVID-19 has disrupted life for transient people in other less visible but ugly ways, according to Linda Wilson, the executive director of Shelter Nova Scotia.

“We have people who come asking to use the washroom,” Wilson wrote in a recent post on the Shelter Nova Scotia website. “Their daily washroom requirements are met by knowing they can rely on places that are kind enough to let them in: libraries, hospitals, coffee shops and other human service organizations. No one can let them in now. That option has been removed.”

“Unfortunately, neither can we,” Wilson continued. “To address this gap, we have rented three outdoor toilets with hand-washing stations now placed in the parking lot at Metro Turning Point. There are lineups to use this human service. Even after 30 years in this work, I find myself asking, how can this be?”

Shelter Nova Scotia operates six buildings that house 285 men and women in the Metro area 24 hours a day.

“It is clear that the underlying crisis is a generational neglect to commit to ending homelessness and poverty,” posted Board chair Meghan Laing. “We have felt the kindness in our community through donations, words of encouragement, collaboration, and a true sense of caring. We can’t help but be hopeful that the COVID-19 pandemic will shift humanity and be the catalyst for change, so none of us have this experience again.”

This year’s provincial budget included $4 million to provide support and find more permanent solutions to tackle the complex issue around homelessness and marginalized people. At the moment, that work is on hold while Housing Nova Scotia co-ordinates an immediate effort to deal with the current crisis.


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Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Thanks Tim for your leadership in the Covid 19 pandemic here. I am impressed by all the people working and serving us the public. NY doctors and nurses etc are sacrificing their lives. This is a nasty, lung destroying virus. We are doing the right thing staying put. Solidarity and praying helps.

    1. Thanks Jennifer for this important coverage. A plan to reduce crowding by 50% – the very definition of a half measure. If self isolation is a matter of survival in this crisis it must be available to all. Fill up the empty hotel rooms now and worry about the cost later.

  2. IN the Herald the other day, Peggy Cameron in her letter to the editor suggested using rooms in the Trade Centre, or its empty hotel. for the homeless people Frankly, the Mayor of London UK has announced his city has rented more than 300 hotel rooms for the homeless — to allow self isolation, and decent conditions to encourage staying inside. Our mayor should be so forward thinking. I echo what the head of Shelter NS noted that “after 30 yrs in this work, I ask myself how this could be?”

    1. Or the Metro Centre, the place with a bank name. Plenty of space and toilet facilities
      Dartmouth Sportsplex has plenty of space. Either facility could house and feed people with minimal supervision. The Sportsplex was used as a ‘comfort centre’ in the days following 9/11.

  3. Kudos on addressing the issues of the homeless. The closing of libraries, eat in fast food chains and other public spaces affects not only washroom requirements, but also results in the loss of small daily conversations and social interactions. Those of us that are socially isolated in our homes, with our phones and internet still have regular contact with others; but not the homeless.