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Halifax Housing Symposium: “Legislation can change things overnight, if the will is there”

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – More than 250 people took part in an online Halifax Housing Symposium Monday. The event, COVID-19 and Housing: Community Experiences and Future Opportunities, was hosted by the Housing and Homelessness Partnership.

Recent numbers from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS) painted a heartbreaking picture as homelessness rates doubled across Halifax Regional Municipality since last year: 477 people are actively homeless. 375 of those, or nearly 80 per cent, have been homeless for more than six months. The data on chronic homelessness suggests many individuals have been without a home well before COVID-19 began spreading in Nova Scotia. 

Lisa Logan knows the struggle of precarious housing firsthand. Shortly after the province’s eviction moratorium expired on July 1, Logan answered a knock at her door. It was a sheriff serving Lisa a 48-hour eviction notice. 

On an income assistance budget of $913 per month, Logan had to act fast: she has four children to take care of. 

Most three bedroom apartments, she said, were listed at $1,500 per month and up.

For the last four months, Logan has lived in hotels but needs to find secure housing of her own come January. She says prospective landlords don’t even return her calls when they find out she’s on income assistance. 

Logan can’t wait for the day she can sit around the kitchen table and have a meal with her children again.

“It’s not easy to raise children out of a hotel room,” she said, quickly learning that refrigerators and ovens are a luxury, forcing Logan to find creative ways to cook and keep food. “The hotel room gets smaller and smaller as time goes on.”

As Nova Scotia faced the first wave of COVID-19, the ways shelters like Adsum House ran were forced to change overnight, explained Sheri Lecker, Executive Director of Adsum for Women and Children.

With no volunteers, visitors, or physical donations, Adsum paid for phones, tablets, and data plans for clients to preserve their community of support while maintaining public health guidelines. Shelters typically rely on donations for clothing to keep clients warm during the frigid, and often relentless, Nova Scotian winter. With donations restricted for the time being, shelters are now responsible for finding new coats for those in need.

Out of the Cold, an emergency shelter in Halifax, led the way in transitioning clients to hotels where the risk of exposure is significantly reduced while preserving the dignity of recipients of these supports.

At Adsum House, the reduced space has forced staff to meet in the clothing room, outdoors, or in a hotel room. Their regular meeting spaces have been converted into a bedroom and an isolation area. 

A presentation by Brianna Maxwell, who recently completed her thesis from the School of Planning at Dalhousie University, looked at the intersections between climate change and homelessness. 

Maxwell has three solutions for Halifax Regional Municipality, housing providers, and non-profit organizations: 

  1. Recognize that homeless people are already vulnerable to climate change, 
  2. Bring people with lived experience to the table, and 
  3. Develop long-term plans to address the interconnected issues of homelessness and climate change.

According to AHANS Executive Director Jim Graham, AHANS hosted 150 guests in four hotels at its peak. The organization hired temporary staff, adding 70 positions to its payroll. 

The Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS) built up $2.1 million in expenses over the course of April to July alone. While the organization received $1.8 million in federal money, the province supplemented the remaining $330,000. 

Brandon Grant, Executive Director of Housing Programs for the Government of Nova Scotia, admitted shelter programs in Halifax were not built for social distancing.

Three pop-up shelters for men and one for women opened to help limit the number of clients in the same shelter space. 

Grant says the province prioritized preventing a spike in homelessness rates while protecting clients from exposure to COVID-19. 647 people have been housed since April 1, making up nearly 100 more people housed in the first six months of 2020 compared to the entire year of 2019. 

The province also provided an additional 120 rent supplements to help bridge the gap for renters who can’t keep up with the skyrocketing cost of rent in Halifax.

If the Premier’s sentiments are any indication, however, the provincial Liberal government has no plans to consider the implementation of rent control legislation.

 During a panel reflecting on the lived experiences of homelessness and precarious housing, Doris MacDonald, an activist and journalist at the North Dartmouth Echo, called the rental crisis a “cornucopia of events”, beginning with the loss of rent caps in 1993.

Now, MacDonald explained, REIT companies are buying up a significant portion of Halifax’s housing market. 

Some landlords are also using “renovictions” (a trend emerging prior to COVID-19) as a loophole to evict tenants for a quick turnover and a steeper rent.

MacDonald lauded the Halifax City Council’s September by-law amendment to allow secondary and backyard suites in hopes of helping meet housing targets. 

She also mentioned the $8.7 million Halifax received from the Rapid Housing Project. Halifax City Council is slated to discuss proposals for the $8.7 million in funding from Rapid Housing Initiative at their November 24 meeting. Council has been reviewing proposals since the deadline on November 6.

Laura Hellesoe, a community member of East Preston, says some families have experienced ostracization because they’ve had COVID-19. 

Hellesoe’s husband tested positive for COVID-19 in March. Soon after, she was given the same diagnosis. She remembers her daughter’s words while waiting for a test result: “I just want to be positive so I can hug you.”

As Hellesoe and her family battled the vicious virus, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer, faced backlash after comments at a COVID-19 press conference singled out African Nova Scotian communities, accusing them of failing to abide by public health measures.

“To be singled out is a horrible experience when everyone should be staying home and following guidelines,” says Tammy Ewing, Youth Outreach Worker with the East Preston Daycare/Family Resource Centre.

See also: Open letter demands the Premier and the Chief Medical Officer apologize to African Nova Scotian communities

Speaker Pam Glode-Desrochers, Executive Director of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Center, was appointed Sunday as one of twelve panelists to Canada’s National Housing Council, a new initiative from the federal government. 

“Legislation can change (things) overnight,” she says. “We’ve seen it … if the will is there.”

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