A few dozen people attended a housing forum in a downtown Dartmouth church on Thursday night where experts who work in housing support talked about the housing crisis in Nova Scotia.
And while all the panelists painted a picture of how the crisis looks in HRM and across the province, the one message they all shared was that Nova Scotia needs more permanent affordable housing.
The event, called Housing First: A First Step to End Homelessness, was hosted by Christ Church on Wentworth Street. The panelists included Heather Jarvis, coordinator of tenant services at The Overlook with the North End Community Health Centre, Ty Silver, a housing first coordinator with the North End Community Health Centre, and Leigh MacLean, team lead, housing support and community outreach from Welcome Housing.
The Overlook is the former Travelodge Suites in Dartmouth North that now houses about 40 tenants. Welcome Housing is the co-partner with Adsum for Women and Children on a shelter and clinic at the former Double Tree Hotel on Wyse Road in Dartmouth.
Alison Coldwell, who is the coordinated access manager with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Project H.O.P.E. that works with unhoused people in Digby, Kings, and Annapolis counties, was another panelist and joined the event via Zoom. Rev. Kyle Wagner, the rector at Christ Church, served as the forum’s moderator.
“As we gather, it’s important to recognize that housing is an issue that affects all of us in different ways. Some of us gathered here may be facing a housing crisis,” Wagner said in the introduction.
Common factors behind housing crisis
Over the hour and a half of the forum, Wagner asked the panelists a few questions about the housing crisis. The first question was: “From your experience helping people who are homeless, and acknowledging that every person’s experiences are unique, are there common factors that you are seeing that are resulting in homelessness?”
Silver said at the North End Community Health Centre they are seeing many people becoming unhoused because of renovictions.
“I can’t even describe how much it’s happening. It’s quite disturbing,” Silver said. “We’re constantly letting people know about their rights. A lot of them don’t know their rights.
Silver said they are also seeing more people unhoused now who have never been unhoused before.
“It’s quite concerning,” Silver said. “They don’t have the survival skills some others might who have had the experience much longer.”
MacLean said the one common factor among all the cases they see at Welcome Housing is simply the lack of housing.
“Realistically, what’s driving [the crisis] right now are renovictions or residential tenancy laws on both sides,” MacLean said. “It’s not fair for the landlords or the tenants. There’s the rising cost of renting right now.”
MacLean added that in Dartmouth North where Welcome Housing owns and operates housing for its clients, rents have gone up 13.9% in the last year.
“I know none of us have got a 13.9% raise at work this year,” MacLean said.
MacLean said about half the people Welcome Housing is working with now are homeless for the first time and many have full-time employment. MacLean also mentioned the city has lost about 100 rooming houses in the last 15 years that served people who came to the city to work. Now, those workers are spending most of their income on housing in the city.
MacLean said some of the people who come to Welcome Housing for help finding housing include nurses, teachers, librarians, housing support workers, and public servants from all three levels of government.
“Who’s going to work when it gets too expensive for anyone to live here?” MacLean said.
Jarvis with The Overlook said the housing crisis didn’t happen overnight.
“The crisis is a crisis, but it’s also a crisis that’s been built, decided, and designed,” she said. “Where we are right now, it’s all about decision makers making policy decisions that have led us here. And that is sad because it can sometimes feel like we’re losing our optimism and hope, but it’s also about accountability.”
“The chronic underfunding of people on income assistance, people’s ability to get health care, to afford their medications, to afford their food. These are policy decisions. In a lot of my experience working with women and gender diverse folks, how many have said it would be great instead of outlawing sex workers, or outlawing drug abuse, you outlawed poverty.”
Jarvis said there are mechanisms that could be used, including rent caps for private landlords, measures to prevent people from buying up multiple properties, policies around Airbnbs, bylaws around renovictions, and rezoning to allow empty commercial properties to transform those spaces into housing.
“We need affordable, permanent housing yesterday, three years ago, in the 80s,” Jarvis said.
Coldwell said in the Annapolis Valley, Project H.O.P.E is also seeing more renovictions, plus the damage caused by intergenerational trauma and poverty. She said many of their clients can’t find housing because of the lack of employment, no credit, and even because they have children.
“It’s really difficult when you have a client who is trying everything they possibly can do, and making good progress, and then something happens like the landlord wants to renovate or they want more money for that property,” Coldwell said. “And unfortunately, there are no safeguards against that.”
“It’s really great when we have [landlords] who are really wonderful and really supportive and want to help and they have great heart, but that should be common practice. That certainly not should be the exception.”
Stigma against unhoused people a ‘huge barrier’
The second question Wagner asked the panelists was, “What are the impacts of the attitude society has about people who are homeless?”
Coldwell at Project H.O.P.E. said the stigma against being unhoused often means that many people who need help won’t reach out to get it.
“And that’s a huge barrier,” she said. “I have 140 people on our list and there’s probably a good 40% to 60% more if we look really hard. And those are probably the most vulnerable people because they are mothers who are afraid of having their children taken away. Or they are a person of colour who doesn’t want to access services and who are facing discrimination.”
MacLean said there are some positive impacts from people, noting how many people turned out at this meeting to learn more about the housing crisis.
“All we need is to push the people who send out the money,” MacLean said. “Talk with friends who have housing available or want to become a landlord.”
And MacLean also told people to show kindness to those who are unhoused.
“People need kindness,” MacLean said. “If you can’t be kind, just pass by.”
Jarvis backed up MacLean’s point about kindness, and added that it’s important to ask what people need rather than assuming you already know what they need.
“Maybe 10 other people brought them a hot meal. Maybe what they really need is to be asked what they need,” Jarvis said.
“Treat people the way they want to be treated. You have to ask what they need. If we assume we know what they need, it will lead to judgement, it will lead to discrimination, it will lead to assumptions that are not helpful to them. It can make us feel good, but may not be the actual help they need.”
‘Everything can fall apart very quickly’
A few people attending the forum had questions for the panelists. One man asked about the differences between the definitions of affordable, attainable, low-income housing.
“I don’t understand all the nuances of this,” he said. “I am confused by all those terms, if you could help me understand.”
MacLean explained at Welcome Housing they use the term rent geared to income.
“It’s not influenced by the market,” MacLean said. “It’s not influenced by one landlord buying the entire street and upping the rent.”
Jarvis said the terms around housing are often confusing because they are constantly being redefined.
“What is affordable in one city compared to a different county, compared to a different province, compared to who is on city council at the time, they’re going to define [the terms] differently, so don’t worry about being confused,” Jarvis said. “So are we, and we’re in this industry.”
“Sometimes I think that the intention is to confuse us,” MacLean added.
Another man asked about the lessons the panelists learned about housing during the COVID pandemic.
“I think COVID taught us how everything can fall apart very quickly,” Jarvis said. “We saw people who were working 80 hours a week displaced because they couldn’t stay in their roommate situation because they might get their roommate sick. We’ve seen a huge financialization of housing by very large companies, and extreme increases in rents.”
Silver mentioned how the lack of housing during the pandemic meant it was challenging to keep the unhoused population safe, especially those living in shelters that offered very limited space for social distancing.
“[COVID] definitely showed the disadvantages of folks without homes,” Silver said.
Shelters are ‘less than a Band-Aid’
The final question asked was, “What are the two most important actions churches, community, and government can take to alleviate homelessness?”
Coldwell said that people can help by learning what’s happening in their own communities and helping out.
“Volunteering goes a long way, especially in our communities in the Valley,” Coldwell said. “People around here are very close knit. There are people who are very well known and so having those faces out there and showing people care starts to alleviate the stigma. I think that’s one of the most important things people can do.”
MacLean said people should also be kind and welcoming to those who are unhoused, but also pointed to the innovation churches brought to the crisis, including during COVID. She mentioned how many of the smaller shelters that are being used by people who are unhoused in HRM were funded and provided by local churches.
“The church really stepped up during COVID and certainly afterward,” MacLean said. “We have to realize social agencies have always come from the church as well.”
Silver recommended Nova Scotians write to the government about the housing crisis and encourage other churches to get involved with the issue, even by offering homes or rooms to rent out to those in need.
Jarvis said people should continue to push the government for permanent affordable housing instead of shelters.
“Our emergency shelters are full constantly. But they’re for emergencies; they’re not permanent. This shouldn’t be the norm,” Jarvis said. “It’s not even a Band-Aid. It’s less than a Band-Aid. Please be mindful of pushing for shelter options because that doesn’t give the resources people need.”
And like the others, Jarvis reminded people to be kind and welcoming to people experiencing homelessness.
“Remember all the people we’re connected with, even if we don’t look the same, come from the same places, or have the experiences, the people we meet, including people without homes for a month, for a day, for years, have incredible skills and strength and teach us things all the time. They are part of our community. They’re deserving of our community and they do give back to our community.”