A group of people sleeping outside in Halifax and Dartmouth, surveyed this summer, has 15 recommendations for the powers that be.
Halifax regional council received a report on Tuesday, National Housing Day, from what special project manager Max Chauvin called the municipality’s lived experience committee.
In the aftermath of Halifax’s disastrous clearing of people’s tents and emergency shelters from municipal parks in August 2021, council voted to “request a staff report and recommendations with respect to the establishment of a ‘Lived Experience Advisory Committee on Homelessness for HRM’ designed collaboratively with community partners.”
The idea got lost for a while, and then in May 2022, council authorized staff “to negotiate and enter into a contribution agreement with the United Way to convene a lived experience committee to advise staff.”
In August, the United Way commissioned Eric Jonsson with the Downtown Halifax Street Navigator Program and Charlene Gagnon with YWCA Halifax to do the work.
Sixteen people living outside surveyed
Jonsson and Gagnon spoke to 16 people living outside, 10 in Halifax and six in Dartmouth.
Fourteen of them were living in tent encampments and two in more secluded wooded areas. Six were living in Halifax Mutual Aid shelters, nine in tents, and one in open air. Eleven of those surveyed were men, three were women, and two were transgender. Twelve were white and four were Indigenous.
Jonsson and Gagnon asked each of the people 29 questions, including a few about their identity, their living circumstances, their experiences with police, and what it would mean “if decision-makers would listen to and value your recommendations.”
They took the responses, anonymized them, and brought them to five analysis sessions with staff from HRM, the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, Welcome Housing, the Brunswick Street Mission, Adsum House, and Shelter Nova Scotia.
In the responses, they found a range of pathways to homelessness.
“I didn’t know anyone in Halifax, so I trusted the wrong person who turned out to be mentally unwell, and they kicked me out. So now I have nowhere to go,” one participant, who had been homeless for a week, told Jonsson and Gagnon.
“My landlord evicted me, and I didn’t know about the eviction ban. I was a bit late on my rent and they said that was the reason for my eviction,” said another, who became homeless during the pandemic.
‘I want an apartment so badly’
Jonsson and Gagnon wrote that the service providers are noticing more “unusual” cases, where people don’t need any service other than a place to live:
Contrary to narratives that this population prefers to be unhoused; almost all respondents in our sample desperately wanted their own housing. When we asked people where they would rather be staying tonight, they told us:
“I want an apartment so badly.”
“In a real bed in a house or apartment. I would live anywhere in the city.”
“I’d be in my own apartment. They said it would be two or more years. I can’t wait that long. I’ll be in the ground by then.”
“A warm house, not even a house, just four walls and a building that is not outside.”
“In a shelter or somewhere inside at least.”
“My own apartment or at least a hotel room.”
There are many more quotes in the report, along with details on people’s feelings of safety and attitudes toward police and more.
Using what they heard from those surveyed, Jonsson and Gagnon worked with the service providers to write out 15 recommendations. They’re structured as topics with specific actions underneath, and grouped based on who’s responsible.
The first group of three recommendations is for the community at large: “Awareness about the impacts of stigma;” “Empathy for people’s situation and struggle;” and “Respect for people’s privacy and belongings.” One of the actions under that third recommendation: “Do not call police on unhoused people simply for being unhoused and accessing public spaces.”
Non-profits are the subject of the next three recommendations: “Prioritization of culturally specific supports;” “Expertise-sharing with government, police, and private sector landlords;” and “Ongoing evaluation of programs and services.”
Four recommendations are aimed at HRM: “Lived Experience informed decision-making on designated site infrastructure and location selection;” “Shelters, not tents;” “Sustained and meaningful engagement with unhoused citizens;” and “Appropriate police responses, training, and protocols.”
The province gets three: “More investments in direct resources for people;” “A standard and quantified definition of ‘affordability;'” and “Strengthening eviction prevention.”
And the final two are based on collective responsibility: “Coordinate and collaborate” services, and “Bring a variety of deeply affordable, social, and supportive housing units online.”
Coun. Pam Lovelace publicly thanked the people surveyed for the report, along with the service providers and staff who worked on it.
“This is an incredible amount of work. It’s new work that we haven’t done before. It provides us with a bit of a path forward, but there’s still more work to be done,” Lovelace said.
“People need to make their own choice to be where it is that they feel safe, where they’re familiar with the spaces and the people, as far as encampments are concerned, as far as tenting is concerned. There is no magic wand to eliminate homelessness.”
But councillors also leaned on familiar refrains. They particularly didn’t like the recommendation, “Shelters, not tents.”
“That doesn’t exist under the provincial government recommendation, which I thought was really interesting,” Lovelace said.
Coun. Tony Mancini questioned why HRM is identified as the provider of shelters. He pointed out that under that item, there was a recommended action: “Decriminalization of grassroots, volunteer efforts to build and install temporary crisis shelters.”
“Personally I’ve got a problem with these Tyvek sheds,” Mancini said.
“We’ve gone over this, over and over again, why they’re problematic. I understand the desire to have a shelter versus a tent, absolutely as we’re now into the cold weather. It makes sense. But we’ve seen the shelters that have been created following our rules and how much safer and more appropriate they are.”
Under “Appropriate police responses, training, and protocols,” Mancini called out the action, “Halifax Regional Police prioritizing relationship building with service providers.”
“I think it should be both, HRP and the service providers. It’s not just HRP, both organizations have to come to the table,” he said.
He wanted to make sure the report was in front of the provincial government. Chauvin said he’s already forwarded it to the province.
Coun. Lisa Blackburn asked whether the province has plans for emergency shelter this winter.
“Because I fear that we are going to be left in another situation where bad weather is coming in and we have to pivot to open up an arena, free up staff, and I’m just wondering. if any plans for emergency housing have been communicated at all,” Blackburn said.
Chauvin said he expects the province to make an announcement soon, and there are plans underway.
Council approved a motion to “continue to seek lived experience expertise from those living in encampments to guide municipal work to address homelessness and its impacts;” and respond to the recommendations “with additional analysis as part of the broader report on HRM’s approach to homelessness which staff are preparing.”