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Without an immediate infusion of federal funding, dozens of Halifax homeless shelter residents currently living in local hotels could be out on the street by next week.
“We have sufficient funding to keep everybody in hotels until June 30,” Jim Graham, executive director of the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS), said in an interview. “There are efforts being made to house people out of the shelter system and out of the hotels so that when we get to the end of the money, there’s as few people as possible that are unhoused.”
In late March, the provincial and municipal governments opened two pop-up shelters in municipal buildings to reduce the number of people in permanent shelters over COVID-19 concerns. In early April, 20 people were moved into a hotel from the Out of the Cold shelter because it was impossible to maintain social distancing.
A confirmed COVID-19 case in a pop-up shelter on April 23 resulted in the infected person being quarantined and the other 35 shelter residents were moved into a hotel.
As the Halifax Examiner reported on May 7, the province announced it was no longer covering the cost for those 35 people after the quarantine period ended. However, AHANS decided it was safer to keep them in hotels and used federal money from the Reaching Home program. That funding paid for the rooms, food, and support staff.
Graham said at least 100 people are now housed at the Lord Nelson Hotel in downtown Halifax and in two other undisclosed hotels. Although their Reaching Home funding runs out June 30, AHANS expects to hear back from Service Canada sometime this week about their request for additional help under the program.
“I can’t speculate on whether we’ll be successful or not, but we do know there’s more money available,” he said. “We’re not asking for a whole lot, we’re mostly just trying to get us to the time when our shelters reopen.”
Before COVID-19 hit the province, there were 175 shelter beds available in the community for men, women, and youth. Public health officials have visited the shelters to ensure layouts conform to social distancing requirements. Graham said although necessary, the changes required to abide by those guidelines will decrease the number of available shelter beds from 175 to about 110.
The most immediate and pressing challenge is those shelter renovations won’t be completed until mid-July.
“We don’t have funding to keep everybody where they are until those renovations are done,” Graham said. “The part that we can’t fix I would say is the shelter capacity. If we’re down to 110 beds or whatever it is that’s what we’re down to and that’s all there is.”
Adding to the problem is the number of people and families turning up at shelters has increased over the past three months due to COVID-19. Graham worries that trend will continue.
“Some of that increase is from the correctional system where folks on remand were just turned loose, so there were folks coming directly from corrections that don’t have a place to go,” he explained.
“And folks who got CERB who did not tell income assistance they got CERB may be at risk of being cut off. So I don’t know frankly what that may look like in a couple of months in terms of folks that are at risk of losing housing they have. There’s a lot of moving pieces.”
Tyler Ledden, 33, was in the emergency pop-up shelter where a resident tested positive for COVID-19 in April. He has been living at the Lord Nelson Hotel ever since and has no idea where he’ll end up after June 30.
“I’m scrambling myself to find out where I’m going to go. I’m living in limbo. You’re basically living in a state of pressing pause and now it’s boom, press play again, but going full fast forward,” Ledden said in an interview. “I’m just trying to make sure that next week I have a roof over my head.”
Ledden was at the Salvation Army shelter before he was moved to one of the emergency pop-up shelters due to COVID-19. He said he was getting help and working towards getting his own place when the pandemic hit.
“The government forced me to be here, and now they’re just stopping it and sticking their heads in the sand and saying good luck to you, see you later,” he said. “Especially where there’s a lot of us, there should be some kind of a transitional period.”
Ledden has been insecurely housed and living on and off the streets since moving to Halifax from New Brunswick in 2017. He said pre-COVID he was optimistic about his future. He now feels like he’s taken several steps backwards.
“It’s my duty as a Canadian to be under the quarantine and to obey it. I’ve done my job. But now it’s like the government has forgotten about me or something,” Ledden said.
“I don’t expect to be totally taken care of but I’d expect at least ‘Hey, let’s try and push this another month until we can get every person’s name who’s been on that list for needing or being in the shelter housed’ before just cutting them off.’”
Graham said he suspects that “when push comes to shove,” AHANS will find a way to allow some people stay in the hotels for a bit longer, even without additional funding. He said some will likely move out between now and June 30, and that money saved — because AHANS won’t be paying for hotel rooms from those moving out — will allow others to stay a bit longer.
“It’s not like we’re going to get to the end of June and there will be 102 people with no place to go. It may be there will be 80 people,” Graham said. “We may be able to keep a few people and most will have to go. That’ll be the hard part.”
If that happens, Graham said he doesn’t know who’ll get to stay, who’ll have to leave, and who will have to make those tough decisions. He said despite doing their best to keep as many people housed as possible, they’re restricted by funding.
“Somewhere in government there needs to be people paying more attention to vulnerable populations than what’s being paid,” he said.
“If for some reason we don’t get any more money from anybody, then there’s going to be dozens and dozens of people turned loose with no place to go. Why are we approaching this from a crisis management perspective at this point? We should be planning for a longer term, and there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for that.”
Ledden agrees. He said that while people are talking about rebuilding a new and more compassionate society out of our COVID-19 experience, it appears this vulnerable population is being left behind.
“I don’t understand why it doesn’t fit in the budget to take care of us, to get those of us who are homeless housed, and also get the country back on track,” Ledden said. “It frustrates me very much.”
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