Residents of a tent encampment in Lower Sackville who were recently moved to a site designated by HRM want more permanent housing, but say there is no affordable housing in the community or anywhere.
The encampment is set up at an HRM-owned baseball field at the corner of Cobequid Road and Glendale Avenue. The residents were previously at another encampment on private property off Sackville Drive near the Sackville River. There are eight residents at the current encampment, which is the first designated encampment outside of Halifax and Dartmouth.
Janice [not her real name], who is from Lower Sackville, was at the previous encampment for five months.
“Someone tried to turn it into a tent town down there, and they weren’t having it, so they moved us,” she said.
“I’ve been trying to find a place for three years. We lived in a motel for two years, but they’re tearing it down, so everyone got kicked out.”
Janice said people are being renovicted from apartments in Lower Sackville and rents are increasing to prices many people can’t afford.
“Most places you can’t find a studio apartment for under $1,200,” she said. “People are renting out bedrooms in their apartments. They’re renting out the living rooms. I saw an ad one time they were renting the living room out, they were renting the master bedroom out for a couple. At the bottom it said, ‘also for occupancy, the hallway.’
Edward [not his real name], who said he has a full-time job working six days a week, is one of the residents at the encampment. He also said he can’t find a place to live.
“I am looking everywhere,” he said. “I was supposed to see a place at 12pm, but that just cancelled on me.”
The residents say there’s more wind at this location and it floods when it rains. It’s also further away from the showers that are available in the same building on Sackville Drive where the Sackville Public Library is located.
‘Our government has not been people first’
Patricia Stephens-Brown, who’s lived in Lower Sackville for 40 years, started her own advocacy group called Have a Heart, Find the Way. She helps the residents of this encampment look for housing and connects them with other supports for other food and employment.
“I have connections, so I try to see where someone is at and attach them to the resources they need,” Stephens-Brown said.
Stephens-Brown said she’s aware of about 11 other people living in tents in locations across the community, although she said she’s heard about others living in tents in more secluded spots. She said the people living in tents in Lower Sackville have been victims of government policy that has not considered the social determinants of health, including affordable housing.
“Our government has not been people first,” Stephens-Brown said. “They’ve been profits first and focused on the market and let the market take care of everything. Well, the market is not taking care of everything. The market is concerned about the market. It’s not concerned about people. It seems our government is more concerned about the market than they are about the people.”
Coun. Paul Russell said one of the reasons HRM decided to move the encampment was because it was on private property. Russell said a team of HRM staff headed by Max Chauvin conducted a “fairly exhaustive search” for another location for the residents and the baseball field was the only location they could find that met criteria for such encampments. Russell said the search for a property included sites outside of Lower Sackville.
“We recognize that some people are out here in tents because they don’t want to be in downtown Halifax,” the Lower Sackville councillor said. “In some cases, it’s because they’re from the Sackville area. And in some cases, it’s because it’s a densely populated area and supports are fairly close.”
Russell said HRM provided porta-potties and fresh water for the residents. He said screening will also be installed soon to give the residents some privacy.
Russell said while homelessness has been an issue for some time, it wasn’t on his radar because people were living in tents further in the woods of Sackville.
“When you are walking down the streets in Halifax, you look over and there’s a person sleeping alongside a building. When you have a homeless person in Sackville, they fade into the woods. They choose to, in a lot of cases. And so we didn’t know how many people here were homeless,” Russell said.
“About two years ago, that started changing and the tents started coming to the forefront and becoming more visible. It raised the awareness on everyone’s radar.”
Mixed reviews from neighbours
Moving the encampment to its current location hasn’t happened without complaints. Edward said one neighbour complained when the residents created a firepit in the middle of the ballfield. Residents say other neighbors came over, took photos, and said they were going to get them removed from the area.
“They said if we don’t have a place by winter, they’ll put us in a hotel,” Edward said.
Stephens-Brown said there’s a “mixed review” from the neighbourhood on the encampment at the new site.
“Some people are very supportive and then other people are afraid,” Stephens-Brown said. “So, there are rumours, which are unfounded, that circulate. Because people don’t understand the situation.”
The encampment is located across the street from an apartment building now under construction. There are also several rental houses in the area. There are several businesses and the Cobequid Community Health Centre surrounding the encampment. Russell said he, the Sackville Area Warming Centre, RCMP, and the HRM team met with commercial property owners to address the issue.
“We recognize it’s not ideal,” Russell said. “I’ll even go as far as saying it’s horrible. Nobody wants it, but we’re doing the best we can. If there are issues, if there are concerns, we will do our best to mitigate them.”
Hidden homelessness on the rise
Jim Gunn is the on the leadership team with the Sackville Area Warming Centre, a grassroots organization that offers year-round support for people looking for housing, as well as a warming centre in the winter. Gunn said they full-time social worker on staff has seen her caseload increase by about 10%. She now has a caseload of about 60 clients. It’s one of the resources encampment residents can access in the community.
“The homelessness issue isn’t something you see or hear about just in the city anymore,” Gunn said. “It’s all around us.”
Gunn said the warming centre, which is operated by Sackville-based Beacon House, partners with and receives funding from other organizations, including the Department of Community Services, the United Way, and the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. He added that a local interfaith organization and businesses have pitched in to help those in the community experiencing housing issues. Some Sackville residents started a Go Fund Me to for the residents.
“They’re stepping up to say, ‘What can we do to help?’’’ Gunn said. “There’s lots being done. I’m not saying we’re keeping up with the need at all. But we’re racing onward trying to keep up with it.”
Another project of the warming centre is micro shelters that will be built on site at the warming centre location on Metropolitan Avenue. The shelters will be like those emergency shelters the Archdiocese of Halifax set up at church properties in Halifax. Gunn said they expect those shelters to be ready for December.
Meanwhile, back at the encampment, the residents say they continue to look for more permanent housing. Janice and Edward said some of the residents are willing to rent a house with a few bedrooms and share the space.
“I want to see us out of here,” Janice said. “I don’t want to see this turn into a tent city. Hopefully, I’ll be out of here before it does happen.”