Homelessness in Halifax – When a bed isn’t enough

As the cold and stormy weather takes hold, many people start to worry about those experiencing homelessness in Halifax. It’s particularly worrisome at night, when the temperature dips and public places like libraries and malls are no longer open.

This year, we’ve heard lots of discussion about how to help people find shelter. For some, that means finding a bed in one of our city’s shelters. Most nights these beds are full. For others, it means couch surfing with friends or family, or sleeping rough (sleeping rough is when people sleep outdoors using tents, vehicles or the built environment, or in places like doorways, vestibules or stairwells). For a few, it means sleeping in one of the makeshift shelters built by Mutual Aid Halifax volunteers.

Every adult has choices about how we spend our time and resources. Where we live, who we live with, what kind of work we do, what we spend our income on. For people living in poverty or who are experiencing homelessness here in Halifax, the options can be much more limited. Sometimes, the people you see sleeping rough in our community are doing so not because they can’t find a shelter space – but because sleeping rough is a better choice for them personally.

The Shelter System

The number of people sleeping rough in our community, while concerning, is much lower than many other cities across North America. There are good, caring people working in the shelters in our community. They stretch small budgets and use experience and relationships to help folks land permanent housing. To many, they are lifesavers.

There are downsides to the shelter system though, which make it difficult for some people to use it. Shelters, by design, are communal living spaces. Occupants share common spaces including bathrooms and dining spaces and have little privacy or space of their own. Many people sharing these spaces are dealing with different traumas. Some have addictions, a mental illness or negative interactions with the justice system. There may be people with different cultural backgrounds sharing spaces. This living situation can lead to conflict. It can feel scary and unsafe. Some people may feel safer sleeping rough or couch surfing.

To help manage the people within their walls, shelters often have rules and procedures to limit risks. But those rules can make things difficult too. Most shelters spaces are determined by gender. This means hetero couples are split up between different shelters and transgender and non-binary folks have to choose which shelter is the best fit for them. People who use substances might not be welcome if they’re using. People who primarily work at night might also find it hard to find a shelter bed that will accommodate them during the day. Most shelters also don’t allow pets.

Shelters were always meant to be a temporary stopgap, a safety net to catch people in crisis. But beds are full nearly every night and the number of chronically homeless individuals is creeping steadily upwards. More shelter beds will not solve the problem.

Real Solutions to Homelessness in Halifax

The housing continuum typically has a range of housing to support people as they move in and out of housing situations. Right now in Halifax we have a gap in our continuum – there is not enough affordable rentals or community housing to meet the community’s needs. The only real solution is to create more deeply affordable housing. Existing buildings could be converted to Single Room Occupancies (also known as rooming houses) that allow for individual space at a lower cost. Backyard suites or tiny homes may help alleviate the crunch. There is a need for more affordable rentals for families. The physical stability of a place to call home impacts all other forms of well-being. It makes it easier for people to manage their lives.

Why is United Way sharing this?

In short, we believe housing is a human right. Everyone should have access to an affordable, adequate home with the privacy and dignity they deserve. The organizations and people we work with believe this too. Shelters can be really helpful in supporting people until they can find permanent housing. They’re just not for everyone. And finding permanent housing can be more a struggle for people who have been unhoused for a long time.

What can you do?

Firstly, If you interact with someone experiencing homelessness in Halifax, consider what choices they might have. Respect their privacy and offer kindness. Don’t pretend to know what’s best for them. By showing compassion and understanding towards others, you can help influence how this issue gets addressed by community. Secondly, is there anything you have to offer that might help? Aside from donating to charities, there may be opportunities to lend skills, experience or even assets like land, to help make affordable housing a reality. Finally, let your elected officials know that affordable housing for everyone should be a top priority.

Special thanks to Eric Jonsson and Jeff Karabanow for lending their insights and experience for this blog post. We would also like to acknowledge that each person’s lived experience is their own. These are just some examples of how shelters impact people and don’t represent everyone. If you’re interested in sharing your experience, please contact us, we’d love to hear from you.

A car with tarp covering belongings on the roof, and bags of recycling around it. Sticker on the graffitied wall behind says "no home" and a cardboard sign says "some things are." even harder in a crisis