Starr Park and Henry Findlay Encampment
You might have noticed the Mutual Aid crisis shelter in Starr Park disappeared a few weeks ago and that this week, another shelter appeared in Findlay Park, but was gone within 24 hours. I have had questions about both and wanted to share what has occurred. There are a lot of twists to this story, and it all starts at Starr Park.
In April, Mutual Aid Halifax placed a shelter in Starr Park. The first resident ended up in police custody after assaulting a neighbour, the next lived there for a few weeks before securing indoor space, which brings us to the third resident who has been problematic. He has threatened people passing by, particularly women, was caught vandalizing vehicles, and was charged following the serious assault on the owner of Jake’s Variety. After Jake’s, he was held in custody for a mental health assessment. HRM didn’t want him returning to live unsupported in the park whenever he was released and was pushing the Province to find a space for him. Before any of that happened though, the shelter vanished. It wasn’t HRM that moved it.
The shelter was found a day later behind the empty federal building at the intersection of Portland, Alderney and Prince Albert. Someone with access to a skid steer had moved it. The feds hired a towing company to haul it away a few days later. End of story right? Nope.
A week or so later, the resident was released from custody and settled into a tent in Downtown Dartmouth. The towing company still had the shelter and some activists tracked it down. Someone called the towing company and told them that HRM had given permission for the shelter to be installed in Henry Findlay Park. This was a lie, but believed them and dropped the shelter off on Monday afternoon.
Encampments aren’t issue free places. Living outdoors without any services is awful for those who have to do it, and it’s unpleasant for neighbours too. Some public spaces are better able to accommodate people sheltering than others. HRM has tried to make the situation a bit better for everyone by providing some basic services at designated sites. The designated Dartmouth sites are parks on Geary Street and Green Road. Two of HRM’s key criteria in situating designated sites is to avoid playgrounds and multi-use pathways. The shelter in Henry Findlay Park was practically on top of the well-used Banook pathway and within a stone’s throw of the playground. It was an even worse spot than the problematic Starr Park site.
HRM had photos of the drop off and on Tuesday ordered the company to come get their shelter. The company was, understandably, upset about being tricked into dropping it off and retrieved the shelter that afternoon. Originally placed by Mutual Aid, moved by someone else, towed away by the feds, and then moved twice more by the towing company after they were lied to. Life is indeed stranger than fiction.
So what to take away from all of this? First, it’s a travesty that our Provincial social systems seem to have no solution for this unhoused resident. He shouldn’t be living outdoors. Holding people in custody isn’t a solution (jails aren’t homeless shelters), but releasing them to go live in a park with no support isn’t acceptable either. The Provincial government has had lots to say about HRM planning, but they have had little to offer on the root causes of why many people are living outdoors in public spaces. Where is the focus on broken provincial systems around corrections, mental health, addictions, shelters, income support, public housing, youth in care, etc? Having people living outside is a choice that our Province makes each and every day, and it’s a cruel one.
Second, rogue vigilante action is not helpful. The shelter should never have been put in Starr Park and trying to fraudulently place it in Henry Findlay Park was an even worse idea. HRM can’t sanction structures that don’t meet the building code, but we also haven’t rushed to remove them at designated sites or in locations where there isn’t much impact on others. Dropping the shelter by the playground and busy pathway wasn’t something that HRM could ignore. The activists who did so, despite clear public direction on appropriate sites, and who lied to the towing company were ultimately messing with a vulnerable man’s life.
As for the person who took matters into their own hands and removed the shelter from Starr Park. The resident’s belongings were still in it when it was taken. This person seems to have given no thought to that when they hauled it away. A dehumanizing act that shouldn’t have happened. HRM was pressuring the Province and service providers to provide resources to help and if the municipality had removed the shelter once a space had been secured, his belongings would have been stored and he would have had an alternative. This is a difficult issue and people taking matters into their own hands will ultimately harm the vulnerable.
So, to summarize, we have the municipality acting well beyond its mandate and with inadequate resources, we have the Province not doing the basics of their mandate, we have some activists doing things without regard for the rest of the community, and other people taking matters into their own hands. None of this is good.
I stand by my words at Province House calling on Provincial leaders to get moving and fix the crisis that is unfolding in our communities. HRM is continuing to push the Province and providers for a solution for the resident who is living in a tent, but the available services are simply inadequate for the need out there.