In frigid February, more than 1800 Hotel rooms available to house the Unhoused in Halifax

2414 rooms.

Sounds like a lot.

It is a lot.  That’s the number of rooms in major hotels in downtown Halifax.  I’m not counting boutique hotels, or hotels in Dartmouth, or hotels and motels off the peninsula.

I’m not counting the 1000 “sharing economy rooms” in HRM which are rentable at the drop of a hat according to the tourism site, Discover Halifax.

According to the site Kayak,  February is one of the two cheapest months to stay in a hotel in Halifax – the price per room can drop by 21%. 

Let’s say that today, one quarter of the downtown hotel rooms are occupied by visitors, tourists and business people.   That still leaves 1811 rooms, with full bathrooms and privacy, to accommodate people without homes, people living rough, people tenting and those living in underground garages. Think about 1811 rooms.

Why are the City Fathers (and mothers) and the province ignoring the elephant in the room? One reason is no government wants to spend much money on the hard to house, or the homeless.  Governments like to leave that job to the ‘voluntary’ sector, the charities, and the churches.   They help people for “free” – that’s what the City Fathers (and mothers) and the province prefer. 

Warming centre at Grace United Church in Dartmouth, NS. (Credit: Grace United Church)

Of course the voluntary sector is just that – voluntary. It  can help some and not all. It can provide some food, but not all that’s needed.  When people still have to live rough, outdoors in dire conditions – it has to be the government that steps in.  When people get frostbite, or hypothermia or chest infections or pneumonia or complications to a myriad of other diseases– they end up in the hospitals or  in institutional care. At that time  it’s all of us who must pay and do pay.  Isn’t it better to pay to prevent tragedies?

A second reason governments don’t want to put people in hotels is that there needs to be some supervision of the people staying  in hotels.  A code of conduct, no smoking, no partying, no cooking – these standards the hotels want enforced. It’s not easy, or pleasant work to supervise people.  But work it is and it costs money to hire people to supervise.

A third reason is that food needs to be provided to the people staying in hotels.  They need meal chits for the restaurant, or there has to be a kitchen facility which provides several meals a day.    That gets expensive but it’s necessary –since there is no cooking allowed in typical hotel rooms, and few guests have the means to order in.

Below: (Clockwise) Painting of children in London by Victorian artist Augustus Edwin Mulready; book cover for Self-Help; sign outside of tent in downtown Halifax (Credit: Colleen Jones/CBC); Victorian painting of homeless women by Mulready; Old Brewery Mission Shelter for Homeless– mural on facade in Montreal 2019

A final reason is the worst and most pernicious one:  just like way back in Victorian times, politicians and people with means believe the poor are divided into two groups:  the “deserving” versus the “undeserving”.   The deserving poor manage to stay with relatives, or find a small rental; they have jobs (albeit for limited hours at minimum wage) and they have “aspirations” to something better.  The undeserving poor include those who drink too much, or take drugs, or have mental health problems, or are disabled, or can’t work.  The “undeserving poor”  lack what in the old days used to be called “gumption.”

The Deserving vs the Undeserving Poor

In 1859, Samuel Smiles, a Scottish entrepreneur and writer, self-published the book Self-Help.  It became a best seller in Britain as it advised the “deserving” poor wanted to lift up their social class and insisted the “undeserving” were really the lazy ones. 

By 1904, when Smiles died, his book had sold a quarter of a million copies, second in sales only to the Bible.  120 years after Self-Help was published, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to give a copy to every school child in the country.

So what indeed do our HRM fathers (and mothers) think of the homeless today – those who struggle in the bitter cold winter to trudge from shelter to shelter asking for a bed for one measley night at a time.  What do our City Fathers (and mothers) understand of those who walk from soup kitchen to drop-in centre in search of a meal or snack with more calories than a sugared coffee and donut.  What do our councillors and the mayor see when they notice those who sit for hours in the colourful plastic chairs at the public library – flanked by their huge bags of clothing and household effects as they have nowhere safe to leave them?

The answer to what do our HRM mothers and fathers think of the homeless:  not much. 

City Council’s lack of will…

The real lack of will or “gumption” we should attribute to our municipal and provincial politicians who rarely put themselves in anyone else’s shoes; who cannot imagine not going home to a warm dinner and their own bed.  It was shocking to discover a few years ago that  virtually every councillor drove to HRM council meetings, not one  took the bus downtown.  The people who need shelter can take the free bus on a Tuesday, but otherwise can’t afford to take a bus to ride from a shelter, to a warming centre to a soup kitchen. 

Last night it was  -15C.  Shelters opened to the maximum.  Then there are the warming centres –indoor spaces with tea and coffee and places to sit.  Not all have cots to sleep on. 

But the following places all have comfy beds, and hot baths. They have a door that locks and provide some shred of  dignity.  Something the City Fathers (and mothers) and most provincial politicians refuse to give the hard up.

Hotel Rooms in Central Halifax

Halifax Hotels# of rooms
The Barrington 200
Hotel Halifax 295
The Westin 310
Hfx Marriott (Casino) 352
Prince George 200
Lord Nelson 262
Cambridge Suites 295
Sutton Place Hotel 262
Atlantica Hotel 238

Featured Image: Winter Lights, Prince Street, by Evgenia Makogon. More on Makogan here. She is a Halifax-based artist originally from Sochi, Russia.

Addendum – on Feb. 6

Just heard an interview on CBC’s Information Morning with Eric Jonsson program coordinator, downtown Halifax, Navigator Outreach.

  1. Unhoused people WERE offered hotel rooms; some accepted and some refused. Bear in mind they were offered hotel rooms because the temperatures were extreme -25C on Saturday. From what I gather, anything below -15C means hotel rooms are offered but only for the time the temperatures are so low. So today, at +3C, hotel rooms are not generally offered. That means most of the unhoused are out of the hotel rooms today.
  2. Jonsson said, “There is no strategy… we are told a week in advance” about whether and which hotels will accept the homeless.
  3. The interviewer said everyone is provided a list of accommodation (for the coldest temps) but getting info to people is a challenge. Also the figure of 799 unhoused was mentioned.
  4. Jonsson said, “We’re not handling the housing crisis at all… market rents rise … we have to rely on it to house the homeless.”
  5. The take away? Hotel rooms are only used in dire circumstances, not for “typically” unhoused people on every winter day. Prove me wrong, please.

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