Opinion by Annabelle Linders.
On August 18, 2021, the Halifax Regional Police evicted unhoused Halifax residents who were living in an encampment in a small park downtown. The evictions led to a large gathering of protesters in the park who were joined by many journalists. The tension between police and the public grew throughout the day. Police officers limited access to the press, physical conflicts occurred between police and protesters, and 24 arrests were made. Police also used pepper spray, injuring non-violent protesters and pedestrians including a 10-year-old child .
Many Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) councillors known for being outspoken on social media were silent for days following the evictions. When they finally did speak up, many councillors shared their disappointment but did not take responsibility. They claimed that they were not aware of police orders until after the evictions took place. Some also blamed the province for neglecting to address the housing crisis, again deflecting responsibility away from the city  .
A province-wide housing crisis is not an easy thing to resolve and requires action from all relevant stakeholders. However, HRM has chosen to rely on the labour of many non-profits to perform the housing work for them. Although these partnerships can be advantageous, HRM has limited their positive impact by limiting which organizations are worthy of funding and allowed to operate.
The Housing Crisis’ Evolution
The events of August 18 led to many public discussions about the housing crisis in Nova Scotia, but this crisis has been growing for several years. This crisis is affecting both low- and medium-income households: in the last year alone, the average home in Halifax increased by over $114,000 . This has pushed many families who would have previously bought homes to rent, and supply shortages have led to increased rent rates. It has been estimated that Halifax alone would need to build 20 to 25 thousand new rental units in the next five years to decrease rent prices .
Chronic homelessness has also increased in recent years. In April 2019, there were 106 recorded residents of Halifax experiencing chronic homelessness. That number has risen to 309 as of October 12, 2021 and peaked at 401 in August 2020 . Shelters have faced overcrowding throughout the pandemic, exposing the cracks in the shelter network .
Relationship Between HRM and Non-Profits
The media coverage surrounding the conflict with police in August has focused heavily on Halifax Mutual Aid, a non-profit that operates anonymously and builds temporary crisis shelters using donated funds, costing approximately $1400 each . Halifax Mutual Aid had provided one of the shelters that police dismantled in August. Halifax Mutual Aid’s shelters have been in high demand and currently have a waitlist of clients requesting shelters due to existing shelters being overcrowded and presenting a large COVID risk .
During the HRM Council meeting on September 28, 2021, the recommendation was that the council would allocate $200,000 from the 2021-22 budget towards the Grants for Affordable Housing Administrative Order . The grants were only to be considered for non-profits who would use them to “rehabilitate exhibiting dwelling units for [...] affordable housing or construct new affordable housing dwelling units” . Although this administrative order would support solutions to some of the long-term problems facing HRM, the grants would not be available to non-profits creating short-term solutions, such as Mutual Aid Halifax.
HRM Councillor Waye Mason said in a statement on September 23, “HRM has no front-line staff, and really the province does not either. The province delivers these vital community services through a network of not-for-profits who get annual funding and project funding” . Yes, funding front-line workers helps to ensure the needs of unhoused people are understood. But is it right to only support the non-profits that operate under HRM’s exact conditions? If the city is not directly working with unhoused residents, should it be positioning itself as a partner of long-term non-profits and an enemy of short-term ones because of some camping bylaws?
On September 29, 2021, HRM council approved funding for modular housing . Although not an identical model, this project will be very similar to what Halifax Mutual Aid has done thus far with their temporary shelters. Instead of working with this non-profit, the city has dismantled their volunteer-built shelters. They will now spend more money to recreate what could have instead been improved upon.
Admittedly, much of Halifax Mutual Aid's work is flawed. The shelters were not safety-regulated and are often placed in very public locations, which some argue would disturb tourism. However, their existing network in the community could have been extremely valuable to the city. They understood the needs of their clients through the network of on-the-ground workers that the city lacks.
Moving forward, the Halifax municipal government should first work towards clarifying housing responsibilities between the province, non-profits, individual efforts, and themselves. This will reduce the finger-pointing from councillors and will help the public hold all levels of government accountable. Second, funding should be redistributed to better fund short-term solutions to housing, ensuring that shelters are safe and not overcrowded. There must also be viable emergency options available, should shelters not be an option. Finally, HRM must ensure that they are not doing the work twice, as they are doing now with the new modular housing project. Through community consultations and partnerships, they can use funds more efficiently and can leverage existing community networks.
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Halifax Regional Council, Expansion of Affordable Housing Grant Program. Jacques Dubé. Item No. 15.1.9. September 14, 2021. https://www.halifax.ca/sites/default/files/documents/city-hall/regional-council/210928rc1519.pdf
Halifax Regional Council, Respecting Grants for Affordable Housing. Administrative Order Number 2020-008-ADM. Approved September 30, 2020. https://www.halifax.ca/sites/default/files/documents/city-hall/legislation-by-laws/2020-008-ADM.pdf
Waye Mason, “Housing Update #2”, last updated September 23, 2021. https://wayemason.ca/2021/09/23/housing-update-2/
Halifax Regional Municipality. “September 29, 2021 - Update regarding ongoing efforts to help address homelessness in Halifax region.” YouTube. Filmed September 29, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkxYAvVqyiw