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What do you want the city to do about homeless encampments in downtown Halifax?

We have three main asks from municipal leaders:

    1. To de-designate all encampments in the downtown core from the list of approved camping sites and protect them from future re-designation. Two out of three encampments were successfully de-designated on February 7, 2024, (Victoria Park and Grand Parade). One site at University Ave. and South Park street remains.
    2. To ensure removal of all tents from all downtown parks by the city’s deadline of February 26, 2024. 
    3. To produce a municipal management and enforcement plan outlining how the city intends to protect the downtown area, and other communities, from random camping by up to 300 homeless tents anticipated to arrive this summer.

We don’t want to see a repeat of what happened in 2022, when there was no encampment management plan in place to thoughtfully pre-assign designated sites, consider the concerns of host communities, plan for the needs of encampment residents, and provide enforcement to ensure that tents are not established outside the approved sites.

This lack of planning in the past led to the current encampments being established illegally in downtown’s most sensitive locations. The city was then forced to acknowledge the facts on the ground and legalized the encampments retroactively, wherever they happened to be, in October 2023. 

What is the position of municipal leaders, and why do you doubt the city's promise to clear the encampments by the February 26 deadline??

In Octobre 2023, city council took the extraordinary step of legalizing the encampment in Parade Square by adding it to the list of approved designated encampment sites, allowing a maximum of eight tents to be constructed. Victoria Park was also approved, with a max of 12. These limits have not been enforced since the decision. The Grand Parade encampment grew to 30+ tents. The number of those sleeping rough in downtown Halifax is estimated to more than double in the summer.

On February 7, 2024, the city announced that downtown designated encampment sites will be closed immediately, and encampment residents will have until February 26 to move into one of the shelter options offered by the province or face the prospect of fines, arrest, and eviction. However, in a CBC interview, city officials stopped short of committing to enforcement of evictions against encampment dwellers who refuse to move. Cathie O’Toole, Halifax’s chief administrative officer told CBC that the city is planning to take a “hands-off” approach and not involve police.

Volunteers at the encampments report that many encampment dwellers will refuse to move into the offered shelters, as they have done so during previous offers of alternative accommodations. “I’m not leaving” said Ric Young, “I’ll get arrested if I have to“, said Neil Pundick, both of whom are residents of the Grand Parade encampment.

Housing advocates are also planning to protest the eviction notices and may pursue legal injunctions to challenge the city’s and province’s claim of the availability of sufficient adequate shelters. These legal challenges can take several months to resolve, as experienced in other Canadian jurisdictions.

Max Chauvin, the city’s director of housing and homelessness, said “the province confirmed there are enough indoor spaces to accommodate the estimated 100 people currently living in encampments”. However, the latest By-Name List report, issued January 31, 2024, notes that 902 people are housed out of a total of 1123 “Actively Homeless” people in HRM, suggesting that more than 200 individuals are sleeping outside, which means that 100 shelter spaces are insufficient to absorb everyone in need as of the date of the report.

Furthermore, Downtown Halifax’s city councilor and Mayoral aspirant, Waye Mason, in an interview with AllNovaScotia.com on the same day of the eviction notices (February 7), contradicted the city’s claim that they will be in a legal position to remove the encampments by February 26. He indicated that, by his estimate, the city will be in a legal position to clear the tents “in a few months”, and that there are currently no plans to handle “the avalanche coming this summer” of additional unhoused individuals. His comments suggest that internal information within council is in conflict with the statements the city issued publicly. This puts into doubt that the February 26 deadline can be defended and enforced.

What about the court cases that established that cities cannot evict encampments unless alternative appropriate housing is provided?

The city has pointed to court cases in Ontario and British Columbia to justify its refusal to relocate tent encampments out of publicly sensitive areas. City officials have concluded that their hands are tied by new legal precedent that was not there prior to the evictions that took place in 2021.

In BC, between 2000 and 2022, there were 24 court injunctions filed by various municipalities to evict encampments. Of those, 18 were successfully granted by the courts (75%). Three cases between 2021 and 2022 were rejected. A closer examination of rejected cases in BC and Ontario does not appear to support the city’s reasoning for refusal to relocate encampments if adequate indoor shelters are unavailable.

In Prince George v Stewart, 2021, and in Waterloo v Persons Unknown, 2023, the judges denied applications to remove the encampments in question. However, what the cities of Prince George and Waterloo were asking for is not similar to what is being requested by the public in Halifax.

The FDH group is calling for the relocation of tents, from locations of significant or sensitive public use to alternative designated sites, as an interim solution while more permanent housing and/or suitable shelters are being secured by the province. The group is not calling for a blanket ban against tenting on public property, or the forced eviction of encampment residents into unsuitable or unavailable shelters, or the demolition/disposal of their belongings, as was the case in the legal precedents in other Canadian jurisdictions referenced by the city of Halifax.

What case law does establish (Victoria (City) v. Adams, 2008, BSCS 1363, and Abbotsford v Shantz, 2015) is that cities cannot enact blanket prohibitions against temporary camping on public property. If no other shelter is available, unhoused people have a section 7 Charter right to “life, liberty and security of the person”, and are allowed to camp overnight on public property. This did not take away the ability of cities to regulate which areas can have overnight camping, or their right to dismantle and relocate encampment residents to available shelters or to other areas for tents to be used.

The BC Supreme Court further affirmed in British Columbia v Adamson, 2016, BCSC 1245, that when shelters are available, encampments can be moved from Provincial land (and prohibited from returning) if there is a negative impact on the neighbourhood or on the safety of campers.

The city of Halifax also referenced efforts by housing advocates to invoke Canada’s obligations as a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, suggesting that encampment residents have a right to housing that allows them to setup encampments anywhere they wish, and indefinitely remain there until the government provides them with appropriate housing.

Canada’s Charter does not create a positive right to adequate/affordable housing and does not place a positive obligation on governments to provide it. In Tanudjaja v. Canada, 2013, the Ontario Superior Court considered international treaties as a potential “persuasive source”. In that case, the court concluded that “Whatever international treaties may say about housing as a right is not of much help.” Canada’s Supreme Court declined the plaintiff’s appeal.

Are homeless encampments a provincial or municipal responsibility?

Dealing with encampments specifically, and their impacts on surrounding communities, is a municipal responsibility. Dealing with “housing” in general is a provincial responsibility.

For example, the province is responsible for building new public housing, providing shelter spaces, improving low income supports, enacting new housing regulations, and providing adequate public health services for those requiring mental health or addictions services.

On the other hand, the municipality is responsible for zoning to prohibit or regulate encampment areas, provide sanitary services, provide security and policing, enforce bylaws, ensure unimpeded and safe access to public spaces, and to conduct local removals and relocations of encampments.

Why was the city able to remove the homeless encampment set up outside the old library along Spring Garden Road in 2021, but did not take similar action against the encampment in Parade Square since 2023?

The incident between police and activists during the clearing of the 2021 encampment caused a political backlash against the current mayor (Mike Savage) and other city councilors who supported the removal of the encampment at the time. In 2021, Mayor Savage championed and defended the eviction of the homeless encampment, citing significant health and safety concerns, along with complaints from the public.

“Citizens have felt threatened” he said in an interview with CBC’s information Morning on August 19, 2021, noting that there have been “serious complaints” associated with the encampments. “The parks belong to everybody. We want people to be safe. We also want people to have housing. And I just don’t believe that tents or sheds are the best solution.”

Two years later, the mayor and council are displaying great reluctance to enforce the removal or relocation of tents from Parade Square and other locations. City hall appears to have greater tolerance for public safety concerns compared to 2021. This despite multiple tent fires and deaths, and despite growing public discontent with increased crime and the loss of access to Grand Parade and Victoria Park.

Many city politicians continue to be hesitant to enforce tent limits or tent relocations, likely to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2021. Many councilors who don’t currently have encampments in their own districts are opposed to encampments potentially being moved into their own districts.

We can also speculate that the lack of enforcement action by the city is influenced, to a degree, by the upcoming municipal elections, scheduled for October 19, 2024.

Unfortunately, without adequate justifications from the city as to why they refuse to take enforcement actions within their jurisdictional allowances/obligations to protect public safety and public spaces, the public is left to speculate and draw their own conclusions.

What is Injurious Affection?

Injurious Affection is defined in Nova Scotia’s Expropriations Act as the reduction in personal or business value of a person’s residential or commercial property, caused by the government’s acquisition of part of the property or by construction of works on or near said property.

Today, several business and citizen groups in Canada are exploring potential claims of injurious affection related to the impact of homeless encampments on their neighborhoods. Law firms are examining whether the law can be interpreted to include an action by a government that allows the construction of “tent cities” that impact businesses and homes in and around the areas of these newly constructed encampments.

These potential litigants include homeowners whose property values are at risk, families who no longer feel safe in their communities and need to relocate at a loss, and businesses who can demonstrate actual (or reasonably expected) losses due to the area becoming less desirable to customers because of government-sanctioned growth in visible homelessness, crime, violence, or public intoxication in the vicinity of the business.

How many people are currently unhoused or homeless in Halifax? How many people are sleeping outside? Where can I find statistics about homelessness in Halifax?

Statistics on homelessness in Halifax are collected in two reports, the “By-Name List” (BNL) and the “Point in Time” (PiT) count. By-Name Lists are up to date lists of all known people experiencing homelessness, whether they’re sleeping in sheltered or unsheltered housing. It includes identifiable data (such as their name) of people living with friends or family, RVs or cars, or sleeping rough outdoors.

In contrast, a PiT count provides a one-day snapshot of the population experiencing homelessness. The PiT count is conducted once every year or two, and collects non-identifying data for research purposes such as numbers, basic demographics, reasons for homelessness, etc. The most recent PiT count was conducted on April 7, 2022, by the Downtown Halifax Business Commission. The data collected from respondents in the PiT report is not independently verified (such as reasons for loss of former public or private housing).

For Halifax, the BNL is collected and maintained by the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS). A report is issued every six months in June and January. As of January 30, 2024, the number of “Actively Homeless” people in the Halifax BNL was 1112. The number of housed (sheltered) individuals in this list was 906, leaving 206 individuals to be considered “sleeping rough” or in a state of “Unsheltered Homelessness”.

In speaking about homeless encampments, it is often incorrectly said that there are “1000+ homeless people in Halifax”. To members of the public who are not aware of the difference, this can imply that there are 1000 people sleeping outside across the city, since the number is mentioned in the context of encampments. Therefore, it is important for media, government, and non-profit organizations to distinguish between the two numbers when communicating with the public about issues specifically pertaining to tent/encampment residents. The correct estimate of people sleeping rough is around 200, not 1000.

Have you ever been unhoused? People who have not experienced homelessness do not understand the needs of the residents of homeless encampments, and therefore should not speak of or suggest solutions to the crisis at hand.

This argument is akin to saying that doctors should not treat a condition unless they have personally been afflicted by it, or that renters should not protest the high cost of housing unless they have walked a mile in a landlord’s shoes.

The argument is sometimes used to diminish and dismiss legitimate public concerns and opinions about the growing crisis of homeless tent encampments. This fallacy disregards the possibility of forming valid opinions based on research, empathy, or understanding of different perspectives.

The Friends of Downtown Halifax group comprises citizens from all walks of life. These community members are experiencing the negative impacts of visible, unsheltered homelessness on their neighborhoods, their homes, their parks, their workspaces, and their businesses. We cannot dismiss the input of the wider affected community simply because they are housed.

Do you want to make homelessness invisible, by moving the encampments somewhere where they are out of sight and out of mind?

We recognize that encampment residents need more government attention, not less. We believe that this objective can be achieved by gaining the goodwill of the public, not by jeopardizing the public’s safety, vandalizing communities, blocking access to parks, or impacting people’s businesses or livelihoods.

A vast majority of the public are aware of the housing crisis and of the growth in the number of unhoused people in Halifax. No evidence currently exists to suggest the crisis will garner less attention if the city designates different encampment sites, nor will it gain more attention by normalizing the presence of tents in economically and publicly sensitive locations – where the damage to residents, businesses, tourism, and the wider economy is at its highest.

Unmitigated visible encampments in publicly sensitive areas risk achieving the opposite effect of what encampment residents want to achieve. Public sympathy quickly erodes due to the prolonged presence of encampments in these sensitive locations. The negative impacts experienced by the communities hosting these encampments lead to growing public discontent with both the encampments and with government inaction towards them.

The result of that public discontent was seen during the botched removal of the encampment in downtown Halifax in August 2021, and is playing out in cities across Canada where downtown encampments are being dismantled and removed. Therefore, to maintain the public’s goodwill and support, temporary encampments should be located in areas that cause the least nuisance or hazards to the public.

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