A few dozen people attended a public meeting in Lower Sackville Tuesday night to learn more about a warming centre and microshelters in their community.
Beacon House Interfaith Society, which organized the meeting, operates a warming shelter at the former St. Elizabeth Seton Church on Metropolitan Avenue. The centre now also has four microshelters that sit in the parking lot.
Jim Gunn and Cheryl Newcombe, two members of the leadership support team at Beacon House, were on hand at the meeting Tuesday night. This was the second meeting the group hosted for the community to learn about the work to help the unhoused.
Gunn handed out fact sheets to the group and talked about the background of the shelter, which first opened in the winter of 2022. The warming centre is now open from 6pm to 8pm each night, and a 20-bed overnight shelter operates from 8pm to 7am.
This year, Beacon House partnered with the Department of Community Services, so the shelter has several staff members, including two social workers. Beacon House got a grant from the Mental Health Foundation to pay for a mental health support worker on a six-month contract. Local businesses have supported the shelter with donations of showers, furniture, and money. Gunn said they’re always looking for more volunteers to help out.
“The way I’ve been seeing this the past year is this is a community taking care of its own,” Gunn said.
One woman at the meeting who said she was from Sackville said she’s worked in the shelter system in Halifax for more than 20 years ago.
“There was never a place in Sackville for anybody to go,” she said. “We always had to bring people into Halifax by cabs, which is horrible. This is really great. I’m happy this is in my community. I’m sad that we need it but so happy this place exists.”
Right now, the contract for the shelter expires in May. Gunn said they can’t plan for beyond that until they know about funding to hire staff and keep the shelter running.
Shelter open for extended hours this weekend
With frigid temperatures forecast for this weekend, Newcombe talked about the need to open the shelter for those days when clients need it. For the upcoming weekend, the shelter will remain open from 6pm Friday through to 7am Monday for clients who want to stay out of the cold. The shelter opened during Hurricane Fiona for people who needed a place to stay.
Newcombe said they’re also working with the shelter currently operating at Christ Church in downtown Dartmouth. The clients at that shelter have to be out by 7am, but this weekend will have the option to go to the Sackville shelter to stay. Staff from 902 Man Up, which operates the Dartmouth shelter, will join staff in Sackville to help out.
“We will have more than we typically have for this weekend,” Newcombe said. “But extra staff and extra security are coming.”
‘I’ve learned so much this past year’
Newcombe said they have about 14 regular clients who are stay at the overnight shelter most nights. Clients book their space each morning, althoug Newcombe said some people will call through the day saying they won’t be back, so that bed will be prepped for another client. They don’t take anyone under the age of 19, although Newcombe said a 17-year-old girl come to their door at 3am once. Staff called Child Protective Services to help.
“We try not to send anybody away, but we have,” Newcombe said. “We call around to see if anyone else has an empty bed.
Gunn and Newcombe said many of the clients have jobs, cars, and are struggling to keep up with the cost of living.
“I’ve learned so much in the past year with all of this,” Gunn said. “I’m assuming because of the housing shortage and the costs of everything, but we do have clients who can’t afford both rent and food. So, they’ve given up the rent. They may have a job, they have a car, and they eat our good food. But they can’t find a place that they can afford. Or they can’t find a place period.”
Newcombe said they had three female clients over the age of 70. Two of those women have since been housed.
“One in in a hotel and that’s expensive, but we’re doing it because it wasn’t safe for her to be anywhere else,” Newcombe said. “The stories are difficult. It’s hard to go home sometimes and go to sleep.”
Beacon House also operates four microshelters that sit in the church parking lot. Those shelters were set up on Christmas Eve and are currently occupied. The 8×8 shelters have a bed, electric heaters, and air exchangers. The costs were shared between Beacon House and the United Way of Halifax. Councillors Lisa Blackburn, Cathy Deagle-Gammon, and Paul Russell covered the costs of hooking the microshelters up to electricity from the church building.
Gunn said another two shelters were donated by the Elizabeth Fry Society and will be set up within the next two weeks.
A few of the meeting attendees had questions about the permanence of the shelters. Gunn and Newcombe said the current residents work with their housing support staff and sign an occupancy agreement that says they have to work to find a job, apply for income assistance, and receive other supports to get into one of the microshelters.
“There’s nowhere in the Maritimes provinces, and possibly in Atlantic Canada, that has more than two [microshelters],” Gunn said. “We’re now in the state where we don’t have the answers either. There are all kinds of answers we don’t have and we try to sort those out as we go. Will we have more micro shelters? Maybe. But we don’t have a decision on that yet.”
Concerns from the commnity
While the majority of people at the meeting were supportive of the work of Beacon House and asked how they could help, including with fundraising, a few people had concerns about how the shelter was affecting the community. One couple who said they live on First Lake Drive, not far from the shelter, had several questions, including about tent encampments setting up in the summer months after the shelter was scheduled to close.
“In the event that this transitions to a tenting event in this area, what are our options to deal with that?” one man asked.
Coun. Paul Russell said some people will be in provincial or municipal parks in the area, noting there’s already an HRM-sanctioned encampment at a ballfield on Cobequid Road.
“We are the only area outside of core Halifax or Dartmouth to have that setup,” Russell said. “So, if someone is in an area, we will have Max [Chauvin with HRM] or Rachel [Smith] or someone else to approach them to see if they would be willing to move to the ballfield, recognizing that all the options on the table are horrible. Everything we’re talking about is horrible. Nobody wants it to be this way, but we’re doing what we can to try and make it better for everybody involved.”
One man talked about attending the World Junior Hockey games in Halifax earlier this year, telling the others in the room that when he was on his way to the games and using the ferry, he noticed two tents set up by the law courts in downtown Halifax.
“The HRM, the city, and the province spent millions of dollars hosting this and one of the byproducts of this is you’re showcasing your city,” he said. “There are people from the States, other places coming here … and this is what they’re going to see? That’s not going to be good advertising.”
He then said he’s spoke with a woman who no longer walks the trail area in in Sackville because she feels intimidated since the shelter set up nearby.
“The perception is, this isn’t a safe spot to walk anymore. To me, it’s not an ask, it’s enforcement. There are places that are provided,” he said. “I think in some cases some people are making the point of trying to antagonize officials.”
One resident who lived on First Lake Drive said while she understood there was a need for a shelter, she said there were still concerns about safety.
“I am not sure the best place for homeless people who need security, and we need a needle sweep every day, is across from a junior high school and a daycare and a playground and an open area where people walk by themselves all the time,” she said. “I’m alarmed … are we as safe as we were?”
Newcombe responded that the work Beacon House is doing is allowable within the boundaries of the church.
“That’s why no one had to come to the public to say, ‘Hey, can we put a homeless shelter in here?’ We’re not breaking any rules, we’re not breaking any bylaws. We’re not trying to be secretive. This is in your backyard; I get it.”
“Wouldn’t it be good if it was down along the main street?” the woman suggested.
“That would be super. Find me a building,” Newcombe replied.
“That’s not my job,” the woman responded.
“Well, it’s not mine either,” Newcombe said.
Newcombe said they had a harm reduction policy in place, safe injection spaces, paid and trained security staff from a private firm, and were building a fence around the shelter and microshelters to have a barrier between them and the local trails, but also to keep clients safe.
“We haven’t had any RCMP visits, we haven’t had any issues. We haven’t had any reports. We have security cameras everywhere. Everybody is recorded coming in and going out. We had the school across the road fundraising for us. So, I don’t know how to say it any better than that.”
Discussions about affordable housing
A number of attendees mentioned the need for more stable, affordable, and permanent housing for the people who are currently unhoused in Sackville. Gunn and Newcombe were asked about their lobbying efforts to get more permanent, affordable housing in the community.
Newcombe has a background working in affordable housing and is currently the finance officer for Quest, which builds small options homes. She mentioned the original plan for the land on which the current shelter sits. She said she and Beacon House approached the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth about plans for the six acres of the land, saying they had a plan to build 256 duplexes in the area. They sent a letter to the archdiocese about the plan, and the archdiocese responded, offering Beacon House the empty church building instead.
Newcombe said she’s still pushing for more affordable housing in the area, including co-op housing, noting Lower Sackville’s history of co-op housing in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Somebody who can’t afford the big down payment can put in some sweat equity and get the house. That’s how Sackville started,” Newcombe said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner after the meeting. “And they were very successful and look at Sackville now. And we have a homeless shelter.”