If the provincial government lifts its rent cap without doing anything else, Halifax will “have to figure out how refugee camps work.”
That’s according to Max Chauvin, director of housing and homelessness at HRM. In a new report, Chauvin estimated 500 to 1,000 people will become homeless if the 2% rent cap comes off as planned at the end of 2023.
The estimate is based on numbers from non-profits, Statistics Canada, and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation around the number of people precariously housed, Chauvin said.
Coun. Kathryn Morse asked Chauvin how HRM would respond to that sort of increase in the unhoused population.
“If we choose to do nothing and simply evict people, we’re going to have to find a way to shelter 1,000 people,” Chauvin told council on Tuesday.
“Excuse me for the term, but we’ll have to learn how refugee camps work. Because those are going to be seniors. Those are going to be families with children. We’re going to need to figure out daycare. We’re going to need to figure out schools. All of that is coming if there isn’t something different.”
There’s already been a 500% increase in the number of people sleeping outside since 2018, Chauvin said, based on point-in-time counts.
The PC government extended the rent cap, first imposed by the former Liberal government, until the end of 2023. Asked about the future of the rent cap earlier this month, Colton LeBlanc, the minister responsible for the Residential Tenancies Act, told reporters “all options are on the table.” LeBlanc made no commitments.
Council to consider $1 million in new spending
Council approved Chauvin’s Framework for Addressing Homelessness on Tuesday, and agreed to consider increasing funding by more than $1 million next year.
The framework identified four ways HRM can help in the housing crisis: “supporting residents sheltering outside;” “supporting precariously housed persons and families to stay housed;” “supporting public education efforts;” and “facilitating the construction and maintenance of affordable and deeply affordable housing.”
Chauvin recommended council continue to provide its existing services. Those include maintenance, garbage, and waste management and providing drinking water and portable toilets at encampments. He identified a gap in funding for those services, and recommended council increase that budget by $334,800 to $582,500.
Halifax should also work with the provincial government to create a daytime drop-in centre for unhoused people, Chauvin recommended.
“As you know, many of the overnight shelters kick the residents out around 8am and then welcome them back at 8pm, and there is nowhere to go. And we would alleviate that,” Chauvin said.
That centre, where people would be able to eat, shower, and wash their clothes during the day, would cost HRM $598,000 annually. That’s half the cost, and Chauvin recommended only moving ahead with the centre if the provincial government pays the other half.
There’s no firm commitment from the province yet, and councillors worried they’d continue to download the responsibility for housing on the municipality.
Provincial partnership needed
“I think about the two tragic deaths we had in ER departments in Nova Scotia, and within a week, the province put together a plan for health care. I don’t know if it’s actually going to work but they have a plan,” Coun. Shawn Cleary said.
“I can’t imagine the province wouldn’t want to partner with us. They’re spending tens and tens of millions of dollars on travel nurses and for a few hundred thousand dollars, we can get some homeless people daytime support.”
Councillors Pam Lovelace and Patty Cuttell raised concerns about people living in their vehicles. Chauvin’s framework says HRM “will support the province, private property owners and other stakeholders to identify sites where people sheltering in a vehicle can park, and in extreme weather, idle their car for prolonged periods of time to stay warm.”
Cuttell moved for a staff report on accelerating that work, but withdrew the motion after Chauvin agreed to make it a priority.
Chauvin also recommended another $200,000 in added services, including providing power and water hook-ups at encampments.
And on top of his recommendations, Chauvin floated the idea of HRM building small shelters, like those made by volunteer group Mutual Aid Halifax, but built to code. He also pitched the idea of a community of tiny homes, at a cost of $1.5 million. The municipality would seek funding from other levels of government before committing to those projects.
In total, councillors will consider an extra $1.1 million in spending for 2023-2024, based on Chauvin’s framework, during their budget adjustment list discussion next month. That’s when it finalizes the budget, voting on additions, deletions, and new revenue sources contemplated through the process.
New navigator would be in-house
After passing the framework, councillors voted to consider hiring another staff person to work on homelessness.
Deputy Mayor Sam Austin moved in December for a staff report on expanding the Navigator Outreach Program. Some of the municipalities business improvement districts (BIDs) run that program with funding from the municipality. Two navigators work with unhoused people in downtown Halifax and Dartmouth and north end Halifax.
Those BIDs asked the municipality to pay for a third navigator, and Austin brought the motion forward. Council voted to add the request to its budget adjustment list.
But on Tuesday, staff tabled a report recommending the money be used to create a new position within HRM. The municipality already has one navigator.
“Adding an additional in-house (HRM employed and funded position) would further enhance the municipality’s ability to provide outreach and navigation services in partnership with those working with street-involved individuals,” Scott Sheffield with government relations wrote in the report.
“Employment by HRM would allow for navigator deployment in suburban or rural communities, including localities without a BID.”
The staffer would cost $150,000.
Austin wasn’t sure the result was in keeping with his original motion, and wanted to consult the BIDs. The motion to add the $150,000 to the budget adjustment list passed unanimously.