At any given moment, a car might pull up to a small park at the corner of Chebucto Road and Dublin Street in Halifax. The driver will get out and talk to a man standing on the sidewalk. The pair will exchange “hellos” and “how are yous.” Then the driver will pass along food, cash, clothes, or gift cards, get back in their car, and be on their way.
John Griffin is the man receiving these items, which will be distributed to residents. Griffin is also one of the residents of Nick Meagher Park, where people have been sleeping in tents since mid-August.
Griffin is one of the original residents of the park; he’s been there since August 18. That’s when Halifax Regional Police forcefully evicted a number of homeless people from other municipal parks on the peninsula. The evictions were met with public outcry and protests. In the aftermath, Nick Meagher Park was claimed by residents and volunteers as a safe place for people to take shelter.
They then gave it a new name: People’s Park.
Thanks to volunteers and community donations, People’s Park has been running fairly smoothly, and the municipality, for the most part, has let it be.
But none of this was meant to last this long. Residents, volunteers, and neighbours alike are nearing the end of their ropes. It’s getting cold. Volunteers are burning out. And some neighbours are fed up with having such a large, public encampment next door.
In the face of a housing crisis that has led to a rise in people sleeping rough in Halifax Regional Municipality — over 400, according to Afforable Housing Association Nova Scotia — volunteers and residents say People’s Park was meant to be a temporary measure — a place for people to live while they waited for the municipality to come up with a better solution.
But nearly three months in, everyone is still waiting for that better solution.
Tucked between residential streets, the park is small; just slightly bigger than a large backyard. There’s a walkway through it, which children sometimes take to get home from two nearby schools.
On an average night, there are about 25 people sleeping in the encampment. Tents cover nearly every bit of grass. There’s a common area, where residents can come to sit and chat, with a makeshift living room and kitchen, where donations are stored.
Residents of the park rarely go hungry. Griffin chalks that up to the neighbourhood’s generosity.
“A good 99.9% of the neighborhood’s been genuine,” he said. “We had a lot of good people come and go. But they’ll never be forgotten.”
Surrounding community meets to discuss park
Though many neighbours and community members are helping out with donations, there are still tensions in the area.
In an email to the Examiner, a spokesperson for HRM said the municipality’s received 56 service requests for the park between August 19 and November 9. The majority are complaints about “litter, personal belongings, and illegal activity.” Halifax Regional Police also confirmed they’d received complaints about the park, but did not specify how many or what about.
On Wednesday night, Lindell Smith, councillor for the area, and HRM’s housing and homelessness administrator Erica Fleck hosted a virtual community meeting to respond to concerns from people who live near the park.
Nineteen people from the neighbourhood spoke, none of whom were living in the park. Some asked why the meeting was hosted on Zoom, when most park residents don’t have easy access to internet. Coun. Smith said there were concerns about keeping the meeting COVID safe, and the purpose Tuesday was to hear from neighbours of the park, not the residents themselves.
Participants were overwhelmingly supportive of their unhoused neighbours and critical of the municipality’s lack of action. Many had volunteered at the park, and described a friendly atmosphere where the community was working together in a time of crisis.
But some who could see and hear the park from their windows complained about noise, drug use, and litter. One said she was afraid to put out her garbage at night.
All who spoke agreed on three things: the city needs to better communicate with the neighbourhood, the park residents need better housing options, and the living situation in the park is unsustainable.
Victoria Levack, who volunteers at the park, has a similar view of the situation.
In an interview with the Examiner, Levack said she’s been upset with the municipality’s lack of communication and failure to come up with suitable housing alternatives for people living in the park.
In September, faced with public pressure to quickly provide safer housing options for those in need, Halifax Regional Council approved an emergency fund of $500,000 to address the issue.
On September 29 the municipality gave an update saying it had found 24 modular units to purchase. The units could house 73 people, but HRM still needed time to find two locations — one in Dartmouth and one in Halifax — where the units would be installed.
The entire month of October passed without an update. So did the first week of November, despite word that new information was coming soon.
This week, an update finally came when council voted to purchase different modular units after the 24 they’d originally looked at were deemed unsuitable, further delaying the process. Before voting, multiple councillors noted housing isn’t part of the municipality’s mandate, but they felt compelled to act based on the situation’s urgency.
Still, the delays have left residents and volunteers at People’s Park frustrated with HRM council and staff.
“They just keep moving the goalposts,” said Levack, “which I’m sure is fine for them, because they all get to go home to their nice warm homes and don’t have to think about this.”
“These people are suffering. They don’t get to go home to a bed at night.”
Levack is a member of P.A.D.S. Community Network — a grassroots organization advocating for Permanent, Accessible, Dignified and Safer housing in HRM. P.A.D.S. formed in response to the August 18 evictions. Until the end of September, the network had volunteers stationed in the park 24/7. But with volunteer burnout, that quickly became hard to sustain.
Though she’s no longer there on behalf of P.A.D.S., Levack still comes to People’s Park on her own time to do what she can to help out. She’s also still involved with the organization.
By the time P.A.D.S. left the park, the group’s members had been able to help residents get organized. They paid to set up a portable washroom, which costs upwards of $1,000/month to maintain. They also developed a hot meal sign up where neighbours could volunteer to bring food, and started an Instagram page where residents could post any items they needed.
After P.A.D.S. left, residents took over the Instagram page and meal sign up. The park is now run by the residents, though volunteers still help out. Members of Mobile Outreach Street Health and Mainline Needle Exchange also stop by regularly to provide services.
Some park residents told the Examiner they feel People’s Park is the safest option for them right now. Many said they preferred living in the park to being in the shelter system, where they said violence is a concern.
With winter approaching and many residents hesitant to be moved to shelters, one hope is that the temporary modular units HRM has promised — which will cost the municipality around $3.2 million — will provide suitable alternative housing.
But getting the units up and running will take time.
A location for the modular units in Dartmouth has been determined near Alderney Landing. But the city is still looking for a place to install units in Halifax, where those camped out on the peninsula — including those at People’s Park — could possibly be housed.
Additionally, the municipality has only budgeted to pay for the purchase, installation, and maintenance of these sites, asking the province to pick up the operational and service costs. The province said in a media release Wednesday that it will pay Out of the Cold Community Association $2.7 million over two years to provide services at the Dartmouth site, but have not given details about doing the same for the Halifax site.
Given these factors, HRM’s CAO Jacques Dubé told council Tuesday he hopes modular units will be up and running in Halifax by January. Once the Halifax site is finally operational, it will only offer shelter for 36 residents.
Rachelle Sauvé — a P.A.D.S. volunteer who slept in People’s Park for over a month to help out — said the funding for new modular units is welcome news. But, she said, with more than 400 people in need of a place to live, the new modular units are just a start.
“It is deeply exciting to think that a good number of people could be housed in these mobile units,” Sauvé said in an interview. “But we also do not want to allow ourselves or the community to get enticed or get distracted by the city’s offer to create and spend so much money on creating spaces for what will only meet the needs of an extraordinarily small percentage of the population.”
Whatever alternative housing is provided, Erica Fleck told those who attended Wednesday’s virtual community meeting that the tent encampment at People’s Park will not be permitted come spring. For now, though, People’s Park remains. All the while, the days and nights are getting colder, and residents must prepare for winter as best they can while they wait for a better alternative.