Residents, advocates concerned about jump in homelessness in CBRM

On her regular commute to work at a café in downtown Sydney, N.S., Suzi Oram-Aylward noticed a troubling trend developing as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the province: more people sleeping outside, people sleeping on vents and people with nowhere to go.

"If you're not working [downtown], if you're not going down there, you're not experiencing it as glaringly as we have," she said.

Oram-Aylward began talking to the people she saw and discovered many of them are experiencing homelessness for the first time.

And with winter just around the corner, many are without warm clothing or supplies.

Christine Porter, executive director of the Ally Centre of Cape Breton, said homelessness is a growing problem in the municipality.

"We've certainly seen a spike in the numbers of those who are absolutely homeless or precariously housed, couch-surfing," she said.

Comfort centre reopens

In response, the Ally Centre has reopened its comfort centre for the first time since June to give people a place to warm up, shower and eat.

The comfort centre opened in the spring after many public places shut their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving those who live on the streets nowhere to even wash their hands.

Although the centre is open daily from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. AT, Porter said it does not meet the community's needs.

"There has to be some emergency shelters put in place because the comfort centres, they're there [during] the day, so where do folks go at night?" she said. "That's the scary part."

On Oct. 27 a person was found dead inside a former train station in Sydney. At the time, Const. Gary Fraser with the Cape Breton Regional Police said it appeared the person had been sleeping there as evidenced by the bedding, clothing and food found at the site.

Fraser said it wasn't a surprise that people who are homeless are moving indoors, with the weather getting colder and the shelter full.

A Band-Aid solution

Oram-Aylward and a friend who works at another downtown restaurant recently launched a community group on Facebook called Helping People Living Without Homes in Cape Breton.

Members of the grassroots group have been making plans for things like soup kitchens and gathering supplies for people who are homeless or precariously housed.

A fundraising campaign for heavy-duty sleeping bags that can withstand freezing temperatures, sleeping pads and winter coats has already raised $1,600. Oram-Aylward has purchased some of those items from a military surplus store.

But she said it's a Band-Aid solution.

"The point of that is just to give people what they need to survive our drastic temperature changes," said Oram-Aylward.

Affordable housing needed

She's calling for rent control as well as shelters with fewer restrictions, such as allowing people to be accompanied by their pets. In some cases, those restrictions are the difference between shelter and sleeping outside.

She and Porter also said they believe CBRM is in dire need of affordable housing.

Porter said the Ally Centre is in talks with various government organizations and local agencies to look at emergency shelters and housing in response to the increased need.

CBRM Mayor Amanda MacDougall could not be reached for comment.