Halifax's shelter evictions turned violent. Is there a better way?

·5 min read
The city and police have been letting some homeless people tent at a handful of sites in Fredericton.  (Elizabeth Fraser/CBC - image credit)
The city and police have been letting some homeless people tent at a handful of sites in Fredericton. (Elizabeth Fraser/CBC - image credit)

Small clusters of tents are tucked away in several wooded corners of Fredericton, the current homes of some of the city's most vulnerable residents on public land.

Police monitor the sites and volunteers drop by to help clear out trash and check in on the people living there.

It's a different scene from one that unfolded in Halifax this week when violence erupted and police with body armour and riot gear pepper sprayed people protesting the removal of temporary shelters set up on municipal property.

Two distinct approaches stemming from the same challenge: people struggling amid a housing crisis.

People who study homelessness and work to prevent it say there are options beyond forcing people out of temporary living arrangements on public land.

Mark Crosby/CBC
Mark Crosby/CBC

Eric Weissman, a professor at the University in New Brunswick, has examined tent camps across North America and watched the situation in Halifax unfold this week.

He told CBC Radio's Information Morning Halifax encampments are a "complicated and enduring response to a lack of housing" and inevitable when people can't afford rent.

Cities such as Portland, Ore., eventually built tiny homes to replace an extensive downtown tent city that was in place for years. A tent city in Toronto led to a rent supplement program.

"The real solution is not forcing people off of these spaces when there is no alternative," he said. "The solution is the alternative: to build housing that is actually accessible to people."

New 'collaborative' approach in Fredericton

The alternative to a tent city in Fredericton is about a half dozen "microsites" across the city with between four and seven tents at each one. The sites are not without criticism nor should it be viewed as a permanent solution, advocates say.

Joan Kingston, chair of the Community Action Group on Homelessness in Fredericton, believes it's a better situation than in past years, when she said police often told people sleeping rough to move. It meant every few days they would pack up their things and often set up farther away from supports like pharmacies and health-care centres.

"The police have managed to keep in contact with all the people who are trying to help. It's been very collaborative," said Kingston, whose organization aims to end chronic homelessness.

"It's working far better than anything else that's been working in the past couple of years."

Jennifer Sweet/CBC
Jennifer Sweet/CBC

Warren Maddox, executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters, told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon the shelters have been assisting people living at the sites with bedding, showers and water, if needed. Having people stay in one site makes it easier for outreach workers to connect with them, he said.

"The police stop by the microsites once a day just to check in and their mission is also to try to get the people at the sites connected" with local organizations and social workers, Maddox said.

Jordan Gill/CBC
Jordan Gill/CBC

He said groups are still working to ensure people have the option of living in a more stable environment, especially as weather gets colder. But for now, he said, the tents are a step in the right direction.

"What we hear is it's a much more controlled space. You're not having women that are being exploited or unchecked criminality there. It's working I think. It's probably a bit too soon to say one way or another. My general feel is that [Fredericton Police Chief Roger] Brown did a good thing. He nailed it," said Maddox.

Tent city was bulldozed

Just 18 months ago in Fredericton, a front-end loader cleared out the remnants of a tent city set up on a riverbank near New Brunswick's lieutenant-governor's residence after the province issued eviction notices to people living in the encampment, citing concerns for their safety.

After the tent city was bulldozed, Kingston said many of the people who were staying there sought help through Fredericton Out of the Cold, which set up a shelter in a high school after COVID-19 hit and often provided services to 30 people. But that, too, was temporary.

Through the summer months, Kingston said the Fredericton Downtown Community Health Centre, which has a pharmacare clinic, bathrooms and laundry, was a frequent gathering place. But since people couldn't spend as much time inside due to social distancing, some would set up outside.

"What it meant for the city and its residents was that homelessness became a lot more visible … people just didn't have very many places that they could be," Kingston said.

"Members [of the community action group] that keep in touch with each other … were all on the same page and all expressing concern regarding what was happening with people being shuffled away from services and the lack of public space."

Ongoing discussions with police

Over the fall and winter, volunteers started visiting people living in tents set up around the city. And as community groups continued to work together to brainstorm solutions and discuss how to reach and assist people, it seemed the city's police were listening, Kingston said.

She credits the police chief for working with a social worker on the force. Kingston shared concerns with both of them directly at their request earlier this year.

Elizabeth Fraser/CBC
Elizabeth Fraser/CBC

Like Maddox, Kingston said the goal remains providing long-term solutions and housing that gives people access to supports, bearing in mind that people who are homeless often have experienced trauma. Some have mental health and addictions issues. They may not trust authorities, feel comfortable asking for help or immediately accept it when it's offered, she said.

One of the reasons she believes microsites are working well is because trust is being built.

"People recognize they're being supported in a compassionate way. It's not a confrontational situation they find themselves in," she said.

"You need to think about how to provide support in a compassionate and non-judgmental way and to build trust in order to have people accept help and find the resources they need in order to be housed successfully. "

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