Halifax Regional Council held a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the housing crisis, almost two weeks after a mass forced eviction of people sleeping in tents and shelters in public parks in the city.
Protests, arrests, and police violence ensued when people tried to stop crisis shelters from being destroyed at the old library on Spring Garden Road on Aug. 18.
Councillors unanimously approved two motions related to housing during Tuesday's meeting: one to allocate $500,000 to the creation of emergency housing, and one to devote federal rapid housing initiative funds to creating 85 new affordable units.
Mayor Mike Savage began the council session with a statement acknowledging that housing was a provincial responsibility. But he said the municipality has a role and it was "time to pull out all the stops."
"We must redouble our efforts to be better partners to care for all members of this community... to lift everybody up and to invest in crisis housing solutions," said Savage.
"I don't want to be the mayor of a city where people don't have the ability to spend the night in at least somewhat comfortable conditions and give themselves the chance to achieve their potential."
During the meeting, Coun. Becky Kent apologized for the events on Aug. 18.
"I am going to talk about... the elephant in the room," Kent said. "I want to acknowledge [the events] were very traumatic, very disturbing, and frankly I want to say how sorry I am that those unintended consequences of what we thought was a good plan unfolded."
At the time of the evictions, Savage said everyone was offered alternative housing, like indefinite hotel stays.
Housing advocates and social workers have raised concerns, saying hotel rooms are not suitable for many people. They also say there are few hotel rooms left, and many unhoused people were told by police there are no other options for them.
In response, Savage tabled what he called the Crisis Housing Motion. It directs city staff to work with community-based social service providers to create new emergency supportive housing and shelter services.
The motion calls for $500,000 annually to retrofit spaces for temporary accommodation and pay for more hotel rooms and other spaces.
Jacques Dubé, the city's chief administrative officer, said there are at least 81 unhoused people in the downtown. He told council he has directed city staff to begin an assessment of municipal property and facilities that may be used as temporary housing.
"We will take immediate steps by identifying underutilized private properties or surplus municipally owned properties
and facilities that can be retrofitted into safe, short term accommodations," he told council.
He said three private locations have been identified, but they will need to be retrofitted with things like kitchens, which will cost more than $100,000.
Dubé is expected to provide monthly reports to council on how the money is being spent.
Not enough, say advocates
Rachelle Sauvé, one of the members of the P.A.D.S community network, said the funding alone isn't enough.
"Providing more funding to an already broken shelter system is likely to leave us in the same place when it comes to the absolutely most marginalized," Sauvé said. "Particularly the people who find themselves in this park."
Sauvé and other advocates have been staying in a park on Chebucto Road to protect the remaining tents and shelters. They're also working to get basic services like portable toilets.
Sauvé said many of the people staying in the park have been kicked out of other shelters in the past for minor infractions.
She said housing is the most important thing, but wraparound services like mental health care and addictions services must also be provided to help people remain in housing.
"What we actually need is permanent, accessible, dignifying and safe housing for the unhoused," she said.
On June 13, the federal government announced round two of the rapid housing initiative, and allotted $12.9 million to HRM.
The 85 new affordable housing units that council approved Tuesday will be built by three local non-profit organizations: the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, Akoma Family Centre, and Soul's Harbour Rescue Mission.
The proposals for these units must be submitted to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation by Aug. 31. A condition of the rapid housing initiative funding is that the builds must be completed in 12 months.
Council received an update on Tuesday indicating that round one of the rapid housing initiative from October 2020 is experiencing development delays and significant cost increases due to increased material and labour costs brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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