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People living in 5 Halifax tent encampments ordered to leave in coming weeks

Nicholas Robert Coulombe speaks outside of his tent in Grand Parade in Halifax on Wednesday. (Brett Ruskin/CBC - image credit)
Nicholas Robert Coulombe speaks outside of his tent in Grand Parade in Halifax on Wednesday. (Brett Ruskin/CBC - image credit)

People living in five tent encampment sites in Halifax are being ordered to leave in the coming weeks, with the municipality warning they could be fined or even arrested if they don't comply.

The municipality is closing five of 11 designated sites, saying better options are now available for the people living in those tents. Residents must be out by Feb. 26.

Notices were posted Wednesday morning at the Geary Street green space in Dartmouth, at Saunders Park, Victoria Park and Grand Parade in Halifax, and at the ballfield on Cobequid Road in Lower Sackville.

The notice said failure to vacate the properties "is an offence under the Protection of Property Act for which any person can be arrested by a peace officer and removed from the property."

Brett Ruskin/CBC
Brett Ruskin/CBC

Nicholas Robert Coulombe, who is living at the encampment in Grand Parade, said he's not sure what he will do now.

"I don't know," Coulombe said outside his tent on Wednesday morning, adding that although his future is uncertain, he didn't plan to stay at Grand Parade forever.

In summer 2022 and fall 2023, the municipality designated a number of sites for tent encampments. Six designated sites are still open.

"We should never accept it as normal that people spend winter in tents in our community," Mayor Mike Savage said at a news conference Wednesday.

"Designated sites have always been intended to be a stopgap measure until better fixed-roof options were available for people who are homeless, and we now have a variety of options in place."

Paul Palmeter/CBC
Paul Palmeter/CBC

Max Chauvin, the director of housing and homelessness for the municipality, said the province recently confirmed there are enough indoor spaces to accommodate the estimated 100 people who are currently living in encampments and on the streets.

He said 30 beds have been reserved for residents at the new shelter at the Halifax Forum, and that alternative options for people who aren't comfortable in shelters, like hotel rooms and modular housing, will also be available.

Street navigators will work with encampment residents to help situate them indoors, said Chauvin, and there will be a three-week grace period for residents to consider their options before they are forced to move.

Cathie O'Toole, Halifax's chief administrative officer, said the city is hoping all individuals leave the encampments voluntarily by Feb. 26, but that officials do have the legal authority to remove them.

She said the city is planning to take a hands-off approach and not involve police unless it's necessary for public safety reasons.

Paul Palmeter/CBC
Paul Palmeter/CBC

In 2021, Halifax police came under fire after they pepper-sprayed and arrested protesters gathered to block the removal of tents and temporary shelters from encampments in local parks and green spaces.

"We're going to try to work with this in an empathetic and human rights way and try to give people some solutions," said Savage. "We don't want it to get to that."

Residents blindsided, says volunteer

Stephen Wilsack, who volunteers at the Grand Parade site, said residents were blindsided by the notices.

"The residents here are appalled. They're upset. It's a traumatic day," said Wilsack, co-founder of Sleep On It, an organization that provides supplies for people living in tents.

He said there are differing views among people living in tents — some have said they will defy the municipal order, while others said they hope to find permanent housing before Feb. 26.

Ric Young, who has been living in Grand Parade since last year, said he's grown to see his neighbours as family, and isn't willing to give that up to live next to strangers inside a shelter.

"I'm not leaving," he said. "On the 26th of February I'm going to rally ... every person in Halifax that wants to come down and support us and we all stand together."

Wilsack noted that although the municipality alludes to other options now being available, they don't work for some residents. Temporary shelters don't offer any privacy and feel unsafe, he said.

"There's overcrowding. It would be like taking 100 people that you don't know and going into an environment, as opposed to being in a smaller community where you know who your neighbours are,"  Wilsack told CBC's Maritime Noon.

"I applaud the government for having the shelter and it's shown very, very quickly that there's a dire need for it. At the same time, shelter is one tenth of the total answer."

Wilsack said while shelters are needed, the bigger issue is affordable housing. He noted some tent encampment residents have some money and are willing to go to an apartment, but there's nothing available within their budget.

Frustration

There have been a handful of fires at a number of encampments that have damaged tents or temporary shelters, and in one case injured a man.

Last month, Community Services Minister Trevor Boudreau said it was frustrating that some living in encampments were refusing to move to the Halifax Forum, where the province is spending $3 million to operate a new homeless shelter.

As of this week, there are more than 1,100 people in the Halifax area who are homeless, according to statistics compiled by the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia.

NDP Leader Claudia Chender said people living in tent encampments should only be asked to leave if there are transitional or permanent housing options. She said the PC government hasn't done enough to create "deeply affordable" housing.

"We cannot lose sight of the fact that for people who are living on the edge, who are having real challenges, things are not getting better, they're getting worse, and they are looking to their government to acknowledge that and to take the action required to fix it."

In a statement, the provincial Department of Community Services said that while the decision to clear the encampments was made by the Halifax Regional Municipality, it does have enough indoor space available in the city for all those currently living in encampments.

The province says that since November, it has added an additional 175 emergency shelter beds in the HRM, bringing the total to 375. Alternative options are also available.

"It is important to remember that services are voluntary and we cannot compel someone to come inside," the department said. "But we deeply encourage people to take advantage of the services and supports being offered."

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