People in homeless camps tell Halifax council what they need

Tents stand at a designated outdoor shelter in Lower Sackville in November 2022.  (Paul Palmeter/CBC - image credit)
Tents stand at a designated outdoor shelter in Lower Sackville in November 2022. (Paul Palmeter/CBC - image credit)

People experiencing homelessness have told the Halifax Regional Municipality what resources would make their lives better, such as creating multiple smaller sites that feature secure shelters.

City staff presented a report to regional council Tuesday that included feedback from 16 people living in encampments and isolated wooded areas around the city who were surveyed in August.

Participants answered a series of questions about key themes such as how they became homeless, where they were sheltering and why, what they think about policing in the city, and what could improve their situation.

Their responses reflect a range of views.

"The tent cities they are placing for people to go to are horrible. It is like they are trying to break the homeless," said one person.

"The park itself is peaceful. Life on the streets is very stressful, people are nasty to you, they are mean to you, so the park is calm and chill. It's safe," said another.

The Navigator Street Outreach Program handled the survey consultation alongside a YWCA Halifax staff member, and participants were compensated for their time. They then put together the report with analysis from meetings with city staff and other service providers like the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre, Brunswick Street Mission, Adsum House, and Shelter Nova Scotia.

Recommendations specifically around encampments include developing a safer drug-use strategy with the help of Mainline and other harm-reduction agencies, and exploring the idea of "designated sober locations."

The city has designated a handful of sites around the region for encampments.

Shelters, smaller sites suggested

The report suggests adding multiple small designated sites across the municipality close to food, payphones, public washrooms, and other resources; reintroducing the Halifax Report Card on Homelessness to set annual benchmarks on progress; and installing secure, weather-proofed shelters with a power supply to replace existing structures.

It also recommends improved training for Halifax Regional Police officers to approach people in the camps with compassion, as some people said they've faced harassment from those in the force.

Max Chauvin, manager of the city's homelessness strategy, said it's clear there are individual officers who are trusted and known by those in the camps and by service providers, but "the message here is collectively HRP needs to come forward."

Another suggestion is to fund an encampment co-ordinator, funded jointly by the city and province, who would ensure basic needs and safety standards are met at all the camps.

Mark Crosby/CBC
Mark Crosby/CBC

There are also recommendations for the provincial government, including ones that address the ongoing need for affordable housing and mental health support. Staff told council the report has been shared with the province, which is responsible for housing in Nova Scotia.

Ultimately, the "only real solution here is more housing," the report says. "Normalizing homeless encampments is a necessity that no one feels good about — it is putting a Band-Aid over a gaping wound."

Coun. Sam Austin said it's been extremely difficult for the city to deal with the fallout of "all the social failures and ills from the province."

"We don't have the means to close that gaping wound … and that is so sad and frustrating to no end," Austin said during the meeting.

The lived-experience feedback and recommendations will be part of a larger report on homelessness coming to council in the new year.