I see four small tents, down from six tents, as I walk by Victoria Park in Halifax most days. One or two tents could accommodate two people, but not more.
There is a clothesline, a set of deck chairs, and some plastic tubs which likely contain the tent dwellers’ household stuff.
There is no fire pit, no fire, no camp stoves, no propane heaters to keep out the cold and the damp. Even if someone owned an electric blanket, the person couldn’t use it since there is no electricity available to the tenters in Victoria Park. The people who live in this encampment probably eat cold food, often from cans or boxes, supplemented by the occasional meal from a fast-food outlet on Spring Garden Road.
Below: tent city in a Halifax building’s garbage depot. Credit Josh Hoffman, The Signal in 2020
Where they perform their ablutions, I don’t know. The new YMCA doesn’t offer free showers and services to the homeless—unless they are Y members. I wonder if the Lord Nelson Hotel on the corner welcomes the tent-dwellers to warm up in the lobby. Somehow, I doubt it. The Central Library is three blocks away. It has all-day access to toilets and lukewarm tap water, but no showers. And the Library will be closed for three days back to back over Christmas.
Why do ten people end up living in an encampment now, in late December? We know that homelessness in HRM has doubled from fall 2021 to fall 2022 Of the 650 homeless people in HRM, 484 or 70% describe themselves as “chronically homeless”. We know that shelter beds are filled every night. Those beds are harder to come by since Covid protocols mean fewer beds are available than usual. It’s an attempt to increase social distancing and cut down on contagion. There are no shelter beds for couples, and few for single women. We know that shelters aren’t very safe or comfortable, so some people don’t want to stay in them.
HRM’s lacklustre response to homelessness
HRM’s response to the homeless crisis has been predictable. Frankly, there was more enthusiasm from HRM Council when, pushing detractors aside, councillors backed a private developer to build the new Convention Centre. It was a $206 million investment of taxpayers’ money which included the city’s original $56.4 million share for the purchase, plus $6 million a year for 25 years to maintain and operate the Convention Centre. A Centre that Halifax would be saddled with that has essentially turned into a White Elephant. There was also fist pumping at City Hall when HRM councillors saw the 62 single-room housing pods (which cost $4.9 million or nearly $80,000 per unit) completed. . The single bed rooms are occupied mainly by single men; every three share a bathroom. There are some social supports available to the residents. Three meals a day have been supplied for free by charitable neighbours.
The question is why aren’t the homeless who live in the parks, in parking garages, or in doorways allowed to live in nice, warm hotel rooms with private bathrooms?
Who scores with the hotels?
Normally this time of year is the worst for the hotel trade, with low tourist traffic due to shuttered tourist attractions, bad weather and traditional family time over the holidays. Last winter, when NS Social Services paid from $105-$150 per night for a room for each unhoused person, it was a bonanza for the hotels usually near-empty in winter. So what’s changed?
The Junior Hockey Championships have come to Halifax, that’s what. The city is preparing for hotels, restaurants and bars to earn a windfall during the games. As Mayor Savage put it, “… it will help those people who have suffered the most, like the bars and restaurants and the hospitality industry in general.” And in case the poor and the homeless were listening, he noted “the economic impact will be in the tens of millions” as it’s predicted that 100,000 visitors will flock to downtown Halifax.
But how does that translate to helping the homeless?
HRM has already put up $1 million to host the Championships.
That money could have paid for 8,000 hotel room nights. For $1 million, 600 unhoused people could stay more than 13 nights in a hotel room right now. Thirteen nights would take them into the new year. After the next two weeks, many hotels will gladly go back to accepting homeless clients whom the Dept of Social Services sends.
But during the 2023 World Junior Championships, the powerful in HRM do not want the hard-to-house living in the next room to the parents of the Junior hockey players –who have come from god knows where to watch their sons compete. The hotels don’t want their establishments to be humbled by the homeless rubbing shoulders with gaggles of tourists expected for the games.
You see it’s a deal that was already worked out with HRM. The unhoused won’t be in hotel rooms during the games but as soon as the games end and the first week of January has passed, once again the homeless will be offered hotel rooms.
Call me cynical, but I’m pretty sure that’s the game.
Featured Image: Homeless in Halifax, photo credit David Donnelly (CBC).
Thank you for writing about this. Have you sent it to a newspaper? Would be wonderful ( if unlikely) if you could have a regular column. Same in Saskatchewan, where Premier Moe has just sent everyone a $500 cheque instead of buying an empty building and converting it to affordable housing or some such. Of course the Feds have billions to spend on warplanes. Renée Nunan
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