Agenda, Regional Council September 12
This week’s Council meeting was dominated by the worsening homelessness crisis in HRM. It’s no surprise to anyone in the core of Dartmouth or Halifax that the number of people living outside is way up. It’s been clearly evident by the fact that almost every park has, or has had, someone living in it this year. The latest point in time count identified 178 people living rough compared to 85 in the previous count in November. The trajectory is very alarming.
There is no shelter or housing available for the growing number of people that find themselves with nowhere to go. As a result, all of HRM’s designated encampment sites, including Geary Street and Green Road in Dartmouth, are overcapacity and two large undesignated sites (Victoria Park and Grand Parade) have formed in Halifax. This is, unfortunately, only the beginning. If nothing changes, HRM staff are expecting the number of people living outside to continue growing rapidly. The situation is grim and getting worse, not better. The report to Council is stark.
Homelessness has become a crisis requiring an urgent response from all orders of government. The frustration in HRM is that the Province, in particular, doesn’t seem to share the same sense of urgency. This is deeply problematic as they have primary responsibility for shelters, social services, and public housing, all of the stuff that the people living outside desperately need. HRM doesn’t have the jurisdiction, staff, or money, to replace the Department of Community Services or Metro Housing. We can help, but we need the Province to do their job. The Province can move quickly and purposefully when they want too. It took only a month to commit to buying modular housing for Tantallon fire victims. Where is the same commitment and quick action for the people living in our parks? HRM has been asking, pleading, begging for help for almost three years! HRM can’t fix this alone and alone is where we are too often finding ourselves.
A number of folks in District 5 have been writing the Province with their concerns (thank you!). I have been ccd in the Department of Community Services’ replies many times now and the Province’s response is always the same form letter touting investments such as the Overlook, the Bridge, and the rapid housing projects. Things would be worse without these projects, but, unfortunately, the measure of success isn’t how much is being spent, it’s what’s happening in the real world, and in the real world homelessness is growing exponentially. What’s been done so far simply isn’t good enough. Winter is coming and record numbers of people are living outside and many more will join them in the months and years ahead if nothing changes. This is wholly unacceptable in a society as wealthy as ours and is a policy choice. Despite record spending, the Province still managed to post a surprise surplus this week. They have the money, jurisdiction, and staff. Our government is choosing this outcome.
My words at Council. I debated whether to link to them directly as I ended up way more emotional than I have ever been at Council. The awfulness of the situation kind of gut-punched me in the moment:
Unfortunately, we’re at the point where I think we have to be realistic about the Province’s political will. Governments inherit the successes and mistakes of their predecessors, what really matters is what they do with those opportunities and challenges. Unfortunately, the PC’s track record, so far, indicates that they don’t see this as a crisis. This isn’t their focus, and they’re not going to do what’s necessary to meaningfully address the situation. I still hold out hope for a change of heart, a change of direction, but HRM has to proceed as if we’re largely on our own, which is really what the report to Council was all about. How do we minimize the harms to people left sheltering outside and to the wider community with none of the programs, resources, or expertise to properly do it? HRM is being left to try and band aid this impossible situation.
Most of the motion in front of Council had wide support.
- HRM will pursue options for individual spaces such as tiny homes and pallet housing (something we’ve been talking to the Province about for quite a while now),
- HRM will look for non-park space to repurpose into encampment sites, including privately-owned property such as vacant lots and parking lots,
- HRM will investigate a large-scale modular shelter and
- HRM will formally write the Province to demand a plan
All of that passed rather easily. The stickier piece was whether to vary HRM’s encampment criteria around sports fields to create a sixth designated encampment on the Halifax Common. Council turned that down, with Mason, Morse, Blackburn and I voting in favour and the rest of Council voting against.
I get that no one wants tents on the Halifax Common. I don’t want tents there, or anywhere else. People should be indoors. Unfortunately, the choice in the here and now isn’t tents or indoor spaces, it’s where do the tents go and what services can we provide? Grand Parade and Victoria Park weren’t designated locations and are both very overcrowded. The only way to alleviate pressure there is to open up additional space elsewhere. Staff identified the Commons as the best and quickest additional site since it has a washroom, power, and lots of space. It’s still an awful option, but the least awful one available in an impossible situation.
Without the Halifax Commons, staff will instead have to look at other park spaces since parks are all we have in the current moment or accept that the situation at Victoria Park and Grand Parade will continue to deteriorate. When asked what other parks could be considered, Cogswell Park, Saunders, Grafton, Point Pleasant, Fort Needham, and Beaufort were all mentioned by staff as possible alternatives, all of which will take longer to setup, be harder to service, and will have their own impacts on neighbours. I think Council should have gone with the Common as leaving the status quo of Victoria Park and Grand Parade isn’t tenable and the Common was the best and quickest option available for the urgent situation we’re in. I don’t know exactly where we go from here in terms of other designated encampment sites. We will have to see.
The question of store operating hours in residential zones was back before Council. Under the Centre Plan, commercial and mixed-use zones allow for a wide variety of uses, without hourly restrictions, as-of-right. The Centre Plan also allows for commercial activity in established residential zones via development agreement, and development agreements for commercial activities typically contain limits around hours of operation to lessen impacts on neighbours. This all makes sense so far. The gap is around existing businesses in residential zones since some of them were created ages ago without a development agreement and, therefore, have no restrictions on hours. This has resulted in issues on the Peninsula around the universities where there have been a lot of complaints over late night activities. The proposed solution was a bylaw requiring businesses in the Centre Plan’s established residential zones to close by 11:00 pm (businesses in areas zoned for commercial and mixed-use zones would be unaffected).
There was a lot of feedback on the proposed bylaw after first reading, so Council deferred second reading to give the area Councillor, Waye Mason, time to meet with business owners and for staff to gather more data. HRM had conducted a public participation process as part of this bylaw’s creation, but it was honestly a complete bust. No one participated feedback really only came after first reading. A pause was in order.
During the pause, staff gathered police data on the numerous calls to the Jubillee and Preston area in the evening, and the issue that this causes police who often have their hands full in the Downtown core at those times. The other result from the deferral is that Councillor Mason was able to meet with the two store owners and the Convenience Industry Council of Canada. Those meetings proved fruitful and the result was a compromise of 1:00 am rather than 11:00 pm. Council amended the time to 1:00 am and approved the bylaw.
Since District 5 is part of the Centre Plan, this bylaw applies here too. There are three businesses in District 5 operating in established residential zones: Triple N on Windmill Road, Namaste Indian Grocery on Gaston Road, and Randy’s Pizza on Boland Road. I met with all three business owners and none had any concerns. Namaste and Triple N close well before 11:00 pm and have absolutely no plans to change their hours. Randy’s is open till midnight, but business is very slow after 11:00 pm and the owner was okay with losing that hour because he mostly spends that time cleaning up rather than serving food. 11:00 pm isn’t a big deal in Dartmouth, and the revised time of 1:00 am is a complete non-issue here since now even Randy’s doesn’t have to change their hours.
- Rescinded direction to transit to look at free wifi onboard buses due to costs being way more than expected
- Increased street and right-of-way fees
- Initiated a process to consider amendments to the Centre Plan to allow for an increase in the allowed density of the proposed development at Spring Garden and Robie to account for some exterior features that weren’t included in the original calculations
- Approved the operating agreement for the Prospect Road Community Centre
- Directed the CAO to draft amendments to the Streets Bylaw to enable regular seasonal road closures on Sundays
- Approved the fourt quarter financial statements
- Scheduled heritage hearings for a number of properties in Halifax including 6484 Jubnille Road, 1741 Henry Street, 1745 Henry Street, and 6038 Charles Street
- Scheduled a public hearing to consider adopting a new heritage district, the Halifax Heritage District, which incorporates both the Barring Street and Old South Suburb into the Centre Plan
- Requested staff reports on re-joining the Canadian Capital Cities Organization and on supporting a potential provincial buyout program for flood prone houses on Union Street in Bedford