Halifax’s mayor, Mike Savage, won’t say when it’s going to happen. Peninsula councillors Waye Mason and Lindell Smith also won’t say when. But HRM councillors off the Peninsula are quick to say what Is going to happen. Becky Kent (District 3) who usually backs the police, warned about impending police action to rout the homeless in Meagher Park, “It’s not going to be pretty”.
Lisa Blackburn (District 14) claimed that “Involvement by activist groups who certainly don’t give a hoot about our unhoused neighbours has changed the water on the beans for me.” Who are these outside agitators? For decades the police and their supporters have pilloried and undercut activists who come to the aid of the racialized, the disadvantaged, and the poor by calling activists outside agitators.
The idea of “outside agitators” has especially grown out of the police culture, its racism and violence, and the more recent shootings of Blacks by police in the US. In the wake of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, Minnesota’s governor plus the mayors of both Minneapolis and St Paul accused outsiders of fomenting hatred or marching against the police.
In Halifax, we have seen some in authority including members of HRM Council and Halifax police label people part of “activist groups” when they voice legitimate social concerns, and rally against police violence.
City officials are beating the drums for the police to invade Meagher Park, home to perhaps a dozen homeless people who live in tents. For unfathomable reasons, officials suddenly want to “remediate” this particular park.
At least one resident who lives in the Meagher Park neighbourhood seems to have changed her opinion going from page one to page three of the Chronicle Herald. Indeed, on Saturday’s front page, Mary Fortis says that she hopes the homeless “can be put in suitable housing.” By page 3, Fortis who “is tired of living beside a homeless encampment” worries the tenters won’t go quietly and “violent fights” could break out. The only way that can happen is if the police decide to march in – as they did last Aug. 18 at the Old Library – and tear down structures and tents, destroy residents’ meagre possessions, and make arrests. Once again, some police will tear off their identification tags, some will sport their “thin blue line” patches, but all will carry a club or spray teargas — even if kids are present. It certainly won’t be pretty.
Right-Wing Freedom Convoy tries to stir up residents of homeless park
Vicky Levack, a spokesperson for Meagher Park residents, said that in the last month members of the right-wing Freedom Convoy and NS United have come to the encampment in the evenings to “stir things up“. Some of the Convoy members are ex-police and ex-military who organised a “hatefilled BBQ”, said Levack. Despite camp residents asking them to leave, the interlopers refuse. “They don’t share our values…and they won’t leave” said Levack bluntly to Jeff Douglas, host of CBC-Radio’s Mainstreet.
So now the extreme right is “salting” a situation in which progressive people are demanding long-term solutions for the city’s homeless. But the Freedom Convoy and NS United seem to want nothing more than to undermine the homeless and disrupt their camps.
Mutual Aid Halifax has insisted that HRM Council’s actions (or inactions) have led to this problem and that the encampment is not a danger to residents or children, as all are a valued part of the community.
Police brutality at the Old Library
It was a year ago when police arrested 24 people in the tent city on the grounds of the Old Library, and tear gassed at least one child –a 10-year old girl— who was merely passing through the park. Where were our 16 councillors then? In hiding, it seems. Not one councillor was present, but many residents, passers-by, tourists and the media witnessed the police’s malevolence.
HRM councillors tut-tutted the situation. They did not want to get their hands dirty. They discovered they could always use police actions as their smokescreen.
In 2021, reporter Victoria Walton at The Coast revealed that as early as Aug. 3 – two weeks before the police raid — all members of HRM council had been informed about the police action scheduled for Aug. 18. In fact, CAO Jacques Dubé and other city staff shaped the messages councillors were to give to members of the public after the raid. Councillor Kathryn Morse (District 10) even thanked Dubé for the “heads up”.
Using the CAO’s talking points to justify police brutality
Most councillors lied outright and said they knew nothing in advance of the police action. Others fussed a bit before using the CAO’s talking points to justify the police brutality. In fact, according to Walton’s article, Dubé gave Councillors two more advance warnings – one on Aug 12, and a final one on Aug 16 to remind them about the scheduled raid. Dubé urged councillors to review the crib sheets he supplied, so they would say the right things if the media wanted a quote or two.
This could be housing
Flash forward to today. The Old Library, vacant since 2014, is a publicly-owned building. Why couldn’t it be used for housing? At 40,000 square feet, it could potentially be made into 24 family-sized affordable apartments, each one 1,400 square feet. Seventy-five to 100 people could live there. But HRM Council never seriously considered it. The Old Library has been sold and probably not for affordable housing. As of today, HRM Council refuses to divulge the buyer of the Old Library.
What of the much-vaunted modular housing in metro? At last report, Max Chauvin, the city’s special projects manager for homelessness, admitted about half the modular housing units on the Halifax side do not have tenants. Last year, HRM spent $4.9 million ($76,000 per unit) to build 64 one room units, with shared bathrooms and one shared kitchen. There are 26 modular units in Dartmouth and 38 in Halifax.
What about couples and families who are in dire need of housing? Selling off the Old Library, which could possibly have housed up to 100 people in downtown Halifax, seems to be the exact wrong thing to do. Yet HRM has done it, in secret, without public hearings, without any accountability.
In 2018, HRM Council revealed a plan for the Old Library which all but three councillors endorsed. The plan called for doubling the size of the building to 85,000 square feet, and to add a big glass cube to it. The new building would accommodate office space for Dalhousie’s Planning department, a public atrium, retail shops and commercial outlets. Just what we need—more shopping! In 2018, the project’s cost was projected to be $30 million. At the time HRM Council considered building it as a P3 development, that would rope in the city and private developers.
At the time, Tim Outhit, councillor for District 16 (Bedford-Wentworth) was one of three who voted against the idea. He said, “It just seems like we’re [HRM Council] incapable of ever saying no.” At that time Outhit was referring to the council’s vote in favour of a staff report on a CFL stadium at its previous meeting.
Meagher Park, aka People’s Park
We are now counting down the days before the police bust up of the Meagher Park homeless community. The homeless are shunted from one park to another; the shelters are at capacity; and the province hopes that private developers (like Clayton Developments) will provide the needed housing.
The province has given millions to private developers to build townhouses, apartments and tract housing – all grossly unaffordable and inaccessible whether by transit or by walking. As In spring 2022, the Houston government designated nine special planning areas that will allow developers to build more than 22,000 homes on the edges of HRM. Gary Burrill, the former leader of the NS-NDP commented “We have here 22,600 units being announced and the total number of them that is designated as guaranteed affordable is zero.”
What about Meagher’s Park, now called People’s Park? Just two days ago, a group of 14 service agencies and advocates issued a statement which demands the police not be used to clear the park. The group presented 10 recommendations which are an “alternative path forward” to relocate and assist the homeless at the People’s Park. I applaud this huge step forward.
However, the city fathers and mothers on HRM Council may still try to bury their heads in the sand, and once again gaslight the homeless, as they did last year. Premier Houston’s government will continue to reward their friends, the developers, and the construction companies.
We should be concerned that the homeless will face yet another winter of camping out in parks, a few weeks respite in a hotel room, then back on the streets. Covid is not winding down; predictions are that the cases will climb in fall and winter, so shelters and soup kitchens will once again have to scale back their services. What then?
Facts to Chew on
The Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia calculates that as of July 26, 2022, 633 people are experiencing homelessness; 456 of them are chronically homeless. HRM’s Max Chauvin says that there has been a 2.8% increase in homelessness in HRM in the last 56 days.
Featured image above: Abandoned, by Luigi Nono (1850-1918). Painted in 1875, the painting shows a couple sleeping rough in a quiet corner in Venice, Italy.