HALIFAX — Two years ago, Scott Hutchins was on his way to work in Halifax when his bus unexpectedly stopped. He hopped off to find traffic blocked by a commotion in a downtown park — there were police, protesters and the buzz of a chainsaw.
It was Aug. 18, 2021, the day a downtown Halifax homeless encampment was razed and a largely peaceful protest took a rough turn. Riot police clashed with more than 100 demonstrators, some of whom were injured, pepper-sprayed and arrested, as city officials cleared out sheds and tents set up outside the old central library on Spring Garden Road.
As Hutchins sat recently on a low brick wall next to his backpack, sleeping bag and tent, a message was scrawled in yellow chalk on the sidewalk below: "Aug. 18th. We won't forget," it read. "Drop the charges."
The 2021 clash is still fresh in the minds of many. There were criminal charges against protesters, and a review of the police response is underway. But some observers question how much progress has been made confronting Halifax's homelessness problem. The number of people without a place to call home has grown over the past two years, and tent cities crowd green spaces across the municipality.
Hutchins recently became homeless himself and is currently couch-surfing with friends while he works as a mover to save money to buy an RV. "I would say the problem hasn't gotten any better in Halifax," he said. "Obviously, I can say that for myself."
Asaf Rashid represented 19 people who after the protest faced charges including resisting arrest, obstruction and assaulting peace officers. Four cases went to trial, Rashid said, but for most of his clients, the charges were dropped.
Rashid describes the events of the day as "horrifying," as his clients witnessed "the force used against people who had nowhere to live, to remove them from the only place they had left."
Protesters were hit with bicycles, body-checked to the ground and pepper-sprayed, Rashid says, and some were left with bruises and concussions. An independent civilian review has since been launched, examining the Halifax Regional Police's conduct during the removal of the encampment.
Since Aug. 18, 2021, the municipality has rethought its approach to homelessness, designating a handful of green spaces for encampments and mostly tolerating it when tents pop up in unsanctioned areas, including around city hall, boulevards, parks, lakes and highway underpasses.
The tent cities stand out, but they are kept mostly tidy with the tents organized like a quasi-subdivision. Walkers and wheelchairs are sometimes parked nearby.
Pasmay Paul lives in a small green tent pitched on the grass outside city hall. On a recent weekday afternoon, he watched as tourists took photos of monuments outside the heritage building.
After serving time in prison and struggling to find mental health and addictions support in his hometown of Sydney, N.S., Paul can hardly believe his luck. "I can't believe they let us tent here," he said, gesturing to the busy downtown street. "I kind of love it, actually."
Paul, 35, moved to the city this month and was shocked to find many of Halifax's homeless shelters were full, some with waiting lists. A recent survey conducted by the Elizabeth Fry Society found the number of people "living rough"in the Halifax Regional Municipality has doubled since November 2022, currently hovering around 178.
A document published by the Halifax Regional Municipality in June said the homeless population had ballooned to its highest level since the deadly 1917 Halifax Explosion flattened entire neighbourhoods.
Sam Austin, a city councillor for the suburb of Dartmouth, said some things have changed since the municipality’s “poorly thought-out” attempt to clear the encampment in 2021, but not every lesson has been heeded. Austin says the recent closure of an overnight shelter in Dartmouth was "eerily similar" to what happened two years earlier.
The shelter at the Christ Church Hall in downtown Dartmouth was funded by the province, Austin says, but the funding ceased in June, though several people were still using the shelter.
Like in August 2021, "the province assured the city the homeless people would be given options," Austin said. Eight people were promised beds in another shelter, but he said the beds never materialized.
Instead, some joined sanctioned encampments in downtown Dartmouth and Halifax, and some set up tents on a patch of grass alongside Lake Banook, a popular recreation spot.
"There was nothing done for people," Austin said. "The municipality was handing out tents to people in tears who have nowhere to go. They closed the shelter, and instead people are living on the side of the road in my district."
The city, he said, has "reinvented" its approach to homelessness, but the province has not followed suit.
Karla McFarlane, Nova Scotia's minister of community services, was not made available for an interview. Instead, the department sent a written statement noting the province has opened over 500 "supportive housing units" across the province, designed for people who aren't able to maintain stable housing on their own.
Spokeswoman Christina Deveau said services include mental health and addictions support and access to primary health care.
"We know there is more to do, and it will take a focused and sustained commitment to make real change — change that seeks to address the root causes of homelessness," she said via email.
Austin noted the province moved quickly to provide modular homes for people displaced by wildfires earlier this year.
"Where is the rapid response to the folks living in parks?" Austin asked. "When we're in a society as wealthy as ours, it's a policy choice."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2023.
Marlo Glass, The Canadian Press