Despite the promise of long-awaited modular units coming in the new year, one Halifax shelter’s impending closure could leave Halifax’s homeless population with few options this winter, advocates say.
This week, the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre (MNFC) announced it would be closing the emergency shelter it’s been operating at 2029 North Park Street in Halifax.
The shelter has been operating on provincial funding since January. In a memo circulated to staff on Monday, MNFC executive director Pamela Glode Desrochers said the organization would be closing the emergency shelter at the end of the month. The memo also stated staff contracts, which expire on December 31, would not be renewed.
Friday afternoon, shelter staff held a rally outside the building, asking the MNFC board to reconsider the closure, which will leave 40 people without beds and 20 without jobs. More than 50 people showed up to support and hear from staff, residents, and advocates about their concerns.
Staff asked why the shelter is closing in the middle of winter, while HRM grapples with a housing crisis. They suspect the closure has something to do with staff attempting to unionize.
Catherine Hubbard, a caseworker at the shelter since May, said the decision to unionize was sparked by staff concerns about lack of policy regarding safety procedures and violence with clients. She also said staff didn’t have adequate access to resources like proper personal protective equipment.
“We wanted to ensure the safety of not just us, but the clients as well,” said Hubbard, talking about why staff had been unionizing. “We work here. It needs to be safe for us to work, but it also needs to be safe for [clients] to live.”
“There was just not enough foundation laid for us to properly succeed.”
Jessica Oldham, a caseworker who helped open the shelter in January, said she’d hoped for more training and resources from management, but it never materialized. She said communication from management has been lacking, and now she’s concerned about staff and residents who will have to adapt on short notice.
“Twenty employees lost their jobs before Christmas with no kind of severance, you know, two weeks’ notice basically,” she told the Examiner. “But we’re just mostly worried about the clients and where they’re gonna go in these cold months coming ahead.”
Darius Mirshahi, a union organizer, said a union application was sent to the Nova Scotia Labour Board Monday morning, shortly before the MNFC told staff the shelter would be closing. In light of the closure announcement, Mirshahi told the Examiner staff have since filed an unfair labour practice complaint to the Labour Board.
In an email to the Examiner Friday, executive director Glode Desrochers said the MNFC board had no knowledge of the unionization effort until staff met with management Monday to discuss the closure. She said the shelter was always meant to be temporary and staff were aware their contracts might not be renewed after December 31.
She said there were multiple reasons the board decided not to continue operating the shelter.
In the memo circulated Monday, she noted concerns over the state of the building — the lease is up at the end of the month — and said a contract with the province for funding into 2022 had not been signed.
On Wednesday, Minister of Community Services, Karla MacFarlane released a statement saying the department had approved $850,000 in funding to MNFC for emergency shelter placements until May 31, 2022. The funding was approved in October.
In that same statement, the minister made reference to the $1.6 million the province is providing for the Friendship Centre to operate the Diamond Bailey House, a new building under construction on College Street that will eventually provide 30 beds for Indigenous clients. The province will also provide an additional $76,000 in the first year of operation for start-up costs. Construction was supposed to wrap in January, but delays mean those beds won’t be ready until spring.
Glode Desrochers said the biggest concern that led to the North Park Street closure was the way the shelter had been operating. The board found the shelter had been failing to provide the cultural supports inherent in MNFC’s mission:
The shelter largely housed, served, and was staffed by non-Indigenous people where this would not be their priority nor their skill set… While we were very happy it was helping people in emergency situations it moved quite far outside our mandate.
She said there were also concerns some non-Indigenous people were lying about their heritage to better their chances of getting a bed. Glode Desrochers said MNFC will take January and February to retool its programs to provide better supports to Halifax’s urban Indigenous population, including “access to the Mi’kmaq Elders network, the ability to share ceremony and where possible Mi’kmaq history as well as talking circles.”
MNFC’s board of directors also released a collective statement Friday, saying they have “never experienced institutionalized racism inside our own walls like we have this week.”
In the public health emergency of COVID-19 people have become desperate and we have many people claiming to be Indigenous when in fact they are not. This has shifted our ability to support our community in a culturally appropriate manner and has stretched our resources beyond capacity.
We have seen so-called allies move to shame us and even discredit the work we do. This is about our community and our needs throughout COVID we operated outside our mandate to support others — which also is an important Indigenous principle to abide by. However, this has come at a cost — it invited in institutionalized racism and people operating under these auspices.
We thank our Indigenous staff, those true allies and clients for understanding our very heavy-hearted decision.
As of December 14, the latest statistics from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia state 96 of the 455 people currently experiencing homelessness in HRM are Indigenous.
On Friday, just as the staff were beginning the rally, Minister Karla MacFarlane released another statement, saying the $850,000 originally intended to fund the emergency shelter through May 2021, will now be used to provide hotel rooms for current residents.
Department of Community Services spokesperson Lisa Jarrett said in an email that details around where MNFC shelter residents will be transferred, as well as the costs for hotel stays and supportive services, are still being finalized.
Modular units delayed; MNFC shelter closure will mean fewer additional beds
Meanwhile, the city is behind on its commitment to install modular units at two sites in HRM. Halifax Regional Council approved $3.2 million dollars of municipal funding for the project in November, and sites for the units have been announced at Alderney Drive in Dartmouth and Centennial Pool’s parking lot on Cogswell Street.
But at a community meeting Thursday night, HRM’s emergency manager Erica Fleck said construction on both sites will be delayed. The Dartmouth site, which was set to be up and running on December 20, won’t open until late December or early January, Fleck said. The Halifax units won’t be operational until at least the end of February, if the weather cooperates.
“I don’t think there’s any other way to get this scale of legal and safe and permitted housing done this quickly,” Councilor Waye Mason said at the meeting, which was hosted on Zoom. “People are working on this every single day, all day. It’s just taking how long it takes to make sure that they’re safe and ready to be occupied.”
Mason hosted Thursday’s meeting in response to requests from residents of his district: Halifax South Downtown. The Halifax modular units will be installed in the district, and at the meeting, residents raised concerns over parking and safety. Mason told residents the city and province will work with the service provider to build a relationship between the residents of the units and other community members.
Out of the Cold has been announced as the service provider for the Dartmouth site, but a provider for Halifax has yet to be confirmed.
In the meantime, unhoused people and advocates are becoming increasingly frustrated. The modular units have been delayed, but winter hasn’t, and the season’s cold, wet weather has made for a difficult situation in park encampments across the city.
Rachelle Sauvé, a member of PADS Community Network who’s been volunteering at Nick Meagher Park — informally dubbed People’s Park — since the summer, said the park has made efforts to winterize, but volunteers and residents are losing hope.
“Being outside in any weather is quite uncomfortable,” Sauvé said in an interview, “but it’s been particularly rainy, and then as the snow came in the last few days a whole bunch of the tents have collapsed under the weight of the snow.”
Earlier this fall, there were around 20 to 25 people consistently sleeping in People’s Park.
Now, Sauvé said there’s anywhere between five and 12 on a regular basis. Some residents have transitioned into other housing options such as emergency shelters and hotels. But people often end up back in the park, she said, because those options aren’t permanent.
“With the closure of 40 beds at the Friendship Centre, we are very much concerned that the population of unhoused folks who have no options will grow.”
Sauvé and other advocates have been critical of HRM’s slow response. Sauvé said the modular units, though much needed, will barely make a dent in the problem.
At the meeting, Fleck said the modular units in Halifax and Dartmouth would house about 60 people combined. Assuming 40 beds are lost at the end of December, the net gain of beds will be heavily diminished.
Mason said he thought the crisis would be better handled if HRM had more funding and jurisdiction to tackle the problem.
“I personally think that HRM would do a better job doing housing than the province,” he said. “However, council does not have that power right now.”