People living homeless protest CBRM council decision on affordable housing

Charlene Marie Johnson says Cape Breton Regional Municipality should approve a rapid housing project now and help get people like her out of tents and into safe accommodations in Sydney, N.S. (Matthew Moore/CBC - image credit)
Charlene Marie Johnson says Cape Breton Regional Municipality should approve a rapid housing project now and help get people like her out of tents and into safe accommodations in Sydney, N.S. (Matthew Moore/CBC - image credit)

On the day she went to Cape Breton Regional Municipality city hall to protest in favour of housing for the homeless, Charlene Marie Johnson woke up with frost on her body.

For the last year, the 46-year-old has been living in a small tent in Sydney, N.S., with her husband and while she has a lot of blankets, she can't always keep the cold out.

"It's kind of hard, but I'm Mi'kmaw," she said. "I'm able to live outside and I'm able to make a fire all by myself."

Johnson was among dozens of people with precarious housing who attended an emergency meeting of CBRM council on Friday, where councillors were scheduled to try to find a way to keep $5 million in federal funding for affordable housing.

Council kicked over a hornet's nest earlier in the week when they rejected a 20-unit housing proposal submitted by New Dawn Enterprises and the Ally Centre of Cape Breton.

It was one of four applications that CBRM received under the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's Rapid Housing Initiative and it was also the only one that met all the qualifications.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Johnson said council should have accepted the proposal and got busy building homes for people who are living on the street.

"The Ally Centre should get the funding they need to help us homeless people," she said. "They're trying their best to help out the homeless."

"Me and my husband, we've been looking for an apartment, but everything is full."

At the emergency meeting, which was hastily called after a public outcry over the earlier decision to reject the proposal, councillors voted to send all four proposals to the CMHC to get help vetting them.

Council unanimously backed the move, saying the CMHC rules had been too rigid — the funding was announced in November and the deadline to apply is March 15 — and they had only been provided some flexibility after risking the loss of the $5 million altogether.

While that provides a ray of hope that one or more of the proposals may be accepted, the decision upset the only proponents who had qualified for the funding and angered Nova Scotia's acting minister of municipal affairs.

Matthew Moore/CBC
Matthew Moore/CBC

New Dawn CEO Erika Shea and Ally Centre executive director Christine Porter called on the mayor and council to resign.

After the emergency meeting, Shea said the whole process made no sense.

The rejection earlier in the week meant CBRM would have to send the money back to Ottawa, despite what many describe as a local housing crisis.

"I do not have the words to describe how deeply the mayor and council have disappointed and let down this community," Shea said.

'That is not leadership'

"The first time this community is given the authority to pick what is this community's priority, they asked Ottawa to decide for them. That is not leadership.

"I think any councillor, including the mayor, who voted today to send this decision back to Ottawa, to have Ottawa decide what our community priorities are, they need to resign."

Shea and Ally Centre executive director Christine Porter said people are dying on the streets and need housing now.

During the emergency meeting, councillors who initially voted to reject the New Dawn-Ally Centre proposal defended their stance, saying they did not have enough information to make a proper decision at that time.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

They blamed CMHC for not providing enough time to gather proper proposals and assess them and blamed the provincial government for not attending Tuesday's meeting to provide help.

Acting Municipal Affairs Minister Colton LeBlanc issued a press release Friday afternoon, saying he had been disappointed by council's decision earlier in the week.

He said department officials "immediately" began working with CBRM and CMHC to try to find a way to keep the money in the municipality.

LeBlanc said it was a "complete fabrication" that the province was not supportive of CBRM and he was further disappointed "to hear CBRM placing blame rather than taking accountability for their flawed actions, only to reverse course due to public pressure."

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Mayor Amanda McDougall said it was only on Thursday during a "stern and frank" meeting with CMHC officials that the municipality was given the flexibility to submit all proposals by March 15, with a final decision to be made by the end of the month.

She said calls for her resignation were "unfortunate," but said she would not resign.

Instead, council managed to find a way to keep from sending the money back.

"Now, we have an opportunity to keep this money in the community."

McDougall said CBRM intentionally did not apply for the first two rounds of federal funding because the municipality doesn't have the staff capacity to administer housing, which is a provincial responsibility.

Capacity will be built

Asked if CBRM now has that capacity, she said it will be built up.

The mayor said Cape Breton's two Liberal MPs lobbied CMHC for the housing funds without consulting the municipality's staff or council.

"Not to say that we're not grateful for this money coming to our community, however, collaboration is essential if you're going to see these programs run successfully," McDougall said.

Now, CBRM has some time to work with the applicants and federal officials to try to increase the number of successful projects, she said.