Overloaded Halifax shelters face 'soul-destroying' reality of turning people away

·4 min read

As shelters in Halifax await 40 new beds through funding from the Nova Scotia government, they are having difficulty keeping up with the demand for a warm, safe place to sleep with winter around the corner.

The province is contributing up to $1.7 million for the beds that will help replace those lost earlier this year because of COVID-19 capacity restrictions.

It's hoped the new beds, which are expected to open around the end of the year, will alleviate some of the strain on the city's shelter system.

"It's not something that's going to happen immediately, so for the foreseeable future ... there's definitely going to be people without a bed," said Michelle Malette, executive director of Out of the Cold Community Association.

CBC
CBC

Malette said her shelter opened last Saturday night, with almost every spot taken by Sunday.

"We are full right now and I would foresee that we will continue to be full," she said. "We have been turning folks away."

The 40 new beds will be split among two organizations in the city. The Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre will offer 25 beds designated for Indigenous men and women, while the North End Community Health Centre intends to create 15 new transitional housing beds in a building on Barrington Street.

'We just can't leave people outside'

The first significant snowfall of the season hit the province Thursday night, with 15 to 21 centimetres of snow in the Halifax region.

Sheri Lecker, the executive director of Adsum for Women and Children, said the organization was able to book nine hotel rooms that night for people who had nowhere else to go.

"It means that an individual or a couple is in a space by themselves, they have the opportunity to keep themselves distanced from other people, they can rest and enjoy the dignity of being on their own," she said.

The hotel rooms were paid for through the federal government's Reaching Home program, but Lecker said there are no guarantees of future funding.

Dave Lauchlin/CBC
Dave Lauchlin/CBC

Adsum and other Halifax-area shelters also moved people to hotels in the early weeks of the pandemic, and Lecker said they had "quite a lot of success" with that. It's a strategy she'd like to see grow in Nova Scotia.

"I don't think it's a secret that hotels in Halifax are not full," she said. "People are outside and they're suffering, and we just can't leave people outside in the cold in this weather."

'Soul-destroying' to turn people away

Lecker said homelessness is a public health issue. People may be out on the street with health issues, wearing wet clothes and shoes, with no reprieve for days at a time, she said.

"This is really not only a health issue, but can be an issue of life and death for them," she said. "It's not just that we want people inside, we want people inside because it's actually dangerous for them to be outside."

The COVID-19 pandemic means that places where people could go to warm up, like libraries and fast-food restaurants, are no longer an option. This places an added strain on shelters when they are the only places available.

CBC
CBC

"As someone who works in a shelter, it's really soul-destroying to answer the door or speak to someone on the phone in this weather — in any weather — and say, 'We're really sorry, but we have no space,'" Lecker said.

"You can call this place or that place, or we'll make some calls for you, but we already know that everything is full. It's awful. It's an awful feeling, and it's something that I think people carry around."

Malette would also like to see hotels being used more often to shelter people with nowhere else to go.

"It doesn't make any sense to me that in the city at night when it's cold that there are people outside, and that we are not using those spaces and not using our money for that," she said.

According to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, there were just shy of 500 people experiencing homelessness in Halifax as of Dec. 15. Of those, 374 were chronically homeless, and Black and Indigenous people were overrepresented in the mix.

MORE TOP STORIES