Cape Breton advocates call for more emergency housing options

·3 min read
A sleeping bag and personal belongings are seen on a sidewalk in Quebec. Advocates in Cape Breton say there aren't enough housing options for people experiencing homelessness in the CBRM, despite relatively low numbers of people needing assistance. (Dominic Martel/Radio-Canada - image credit)
A sleeping bag and personal belongings are seen on a sidewalk in Quebec. Advocates in Cape Breton say there aren't enough housing options for people experiencing homelessness in the CBRM, despite relatively low numbers of people needing assistance. (Dominic Martel/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Advocates are renewing calls for new forms of emergency housing as the number of people turning up at a homeless shelter in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality rises.

Suzi Oram-Aylward has spent time in Halifax working outreach with people who were living rough or experiencing homelessness.

She now lives in Cape Breton, where she says there are fewer housing options.

"One of the most frustrating things about the numbers here on the island is they're not that big," said Oram-Aylward.

"This isn't like 2,000 people experiencing homelessness; it's an amount that I feel, like, is fixable."

In 2019, the Affordable Housing and Homelessness Working Group identified ways to combat homelessness in Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

Submitted by Suzi Oram-Aylward
Submitted by Suzi Oram-Aylward

But Oram-Aylward said there has been little movement since that time.

"It's just tremendously frustrating to have the need so carefully documented here and really no resources to address it," she said.

"Someone's going to freeze to death. People are going to freeze to death. There are already people that have nowhere to go and are sleeping outside and it's a miracle they're still alive."

Janet Bickerton is a nurse and co-ordinator of health services at the Ally Centre of Cape Breton, which offers services to vulnerable populations, including people experiencing homelessness.

She estimates there are 25 to 30 people in the Sydney area who are consistently without shelter.

Not everyone is willing to go to a shelter or abide by their rules, said Bickerton, especially people with substance-use disorders and mental illness.

"They need somewhere to be," Bickerton said. "And any caring community is going to address that, and that's going to be high on their priority list."

Growing demand for shelter space

At least one Sydney shelter is seeing more people showing up at their doors.

The Cape Breton Community Housing Association runs a shelter on Townsend Street that can typically house 28 people, but numbers are often reaching capacity.

"I know that last weekend we were a little bit over capacity, but were able to accommodate everyone who came," said Fred Deveaux, the association's executive director.

"We had some people in the living room on couches and in chairs for the night because it was cold out."

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Ongoing renovations to the shelter's basement will grow its capacity to about 40 people.

Deveaux said people who come to the shelter are not turned away for being intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, but people who come to stay must refrain from disruptive or violent behaviour. They must also work with staff to improve their situation and find independent housing.

Bickerton and Oram-Aylward said CBRM should be working to create spaces for the people who are falling through the cracks of the shelter system.

Their suggestion is dipping into the extra $15 million from the Nova Scotia government after it doubled the capacity grant given to municipalities.

Mayor Amanda McDougall said CBRM staff are working to see what can be done, but she did not offer any commitments on spending.

"If there is a way that we can offset our operational and capital budgets with this $15 million, then we have more money to do projects like housing, like services for our community organizations, or support for those stakeholders," McDougall said.

"Inevitably, it is going to all be invested back into our community one way or another."

McDougall said CBRM staff are focused on identifying surplus land and forming partnerships with groups that are interested in housing developments.

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