Tensions rise at Halifax park as city calls on police to remove people

There are still several tents and structures set up at Meagher Park on the corner of Chebucto and Dublin.  (Patrick Callaghan/ CBC - image credit)
There are still several tents and structures set up at Meagher Park on the corner of Chebucto and Dublin. (Patrick Callaghan/ CBC - image credit)

Residents and volunteers in Halifax's west end say they're on edge after the municipality asked police for help removing people experiencing homelessness from a tent encampment on Chebucto Road.

In a statement released Thursday evening, the municipality said it submitted an official request for help from Halifax Regional Police on Wednesday and that enforcement actions are now up to police.

Council held a special meeting on Tuesday about homelessness in the city and specifically what's happening at Meagher Park, also known as People's Park, where people have been staying since last summer.

Many councillors said the situation at the park can't continue, echoing concerns from neighbours about violence, verbal threats and health and safety issues.

Bruce Wilson, who lives on Chebucto Road, said in the days since that meeting he's noticed more activity at the park, "almost like a ramping up and preparing for things."

He said an outside group of protesters has shown up.

"Within the last several days, there's been an increase in activity ... [It] seems like a protection of the park, almost a fortifying of it. We see a pallet barricade up on one side on Dublin Street," he told CBC Radio's Information Morning.

Bob Murphy/CBC
Bob Murphy/CBC

The issue of people co-opting the situation at the park for their own political agenda was also raised by multiple councillors during this week's meeting.

Victoria Levack, a volunteer with PADS Community Advocacy Network, said protesters that are not associated with her group or the park residents began showing up in July, usually in the evenings, "to stir up stuff."

"They asked if we wanted their help. We said no thank you and they came anyway," Levack told CBC Radio's Mainstreet. "And then we said not so nicely please go away. You're not welcome here. We don't support your values … and they won't leave."

Police say illegal fire was set

Halifax Regional Police said in a statement on Thursday evening that "efforts continue to be made to allow occupants to voluntarily vacate and remove their belongings from the municipal property."

Police also said that conditions at Meagher Park are "putting many individuals in an increasingly vulnerable situation."

Police said there was an incident this week where an illegal fire was set and "park occupants" tried to stop firefighters from putting it out.

Listen to Victoria Levack's full interview:

"We have an obligation to protect the public safety of all involved — and urge efforts towards a safe exit," HRP said.

But Levack said threatening people experiencing homelessness with police action isn't the answer. On Thursday, she said police cars were driving back and forth, surveying the park.

"Police evictions of people in tents and shelters are wrong, especially when there are no better options. We cannot police our way out of a housing crisis," PADS wrote in a statement this week.

Patrick Callaghan/ CBC
Patrick Callaghan/ CBC

Wilson, meanwhile, said he sees no other option than bringing in police.

"It's impacting us negatively, emotionally. [We're] concerned about our safety, safety of families, safety of property and it's been a year and it's been very stressful," he said.

While Wilson said he understands some of the new people at the park are not affiliated with residents or volunteers, he's troubled by the behaviour he's witnessed over the past several months.

Remembering last August

There's also concern among some that police involvement could escalate and turn into a repeat of what happened one year ago.

Last August, protesters clashed with police officers on Spring Garden road as city workers removed shelters from parks and green spaces. Police pepper-sprayed and arrested some protesters.

Criminal defence lawyer Asaf Rashid originally represented 18 people who were arrested that day.

"It's setting up for that again, based on what city council is saying [about] use of police. That concerns me greatly," he said, adding that no formal inquiry into the municipality's oversight of police operations that day has taken place.

At last count, more than 600 people were experiencing homelessness in the Halifax region.

During the meeting this week, many councillors praised the city and province for the work that's been done to build modular units in Halifax and Dartmouth and approve specific areas for tent sites.

But Rashid said those solutions clearly aren't working for everyone. 
"It's been talked about since last year, that the city and province are working together, but far more needs to happen in order to address the problem," he said.

Listen to Asaf Rashid's full interview: