On Saturday, Mutual Aid Halifax dropped a pre-built shelter in Starr Park on Prince Albert Road (by the Marine Railway re-creation and Sawmill River). As usual, Mutual Aid did so without permission from HRM. The problem is Mutual Aid’s shelters aren’t safe. They have no supporting services, don’t meet the basics of the building code, and are placed with no regard for anyone else. The shelter at Starr Park wasn’t just occupied by one person, there were three people staying in that tiny space. Three people in a space with no heat, power, water, or a toilet, and with no support from any service providers.
Yesterday morning, unfortunately, the dangerous situation that Mutual Aid actively created blew up. A neighbour knocked on the door of the Starr Park shelter and the exchange ended very badly. The neighbour, a senior, was attacked by a shelter occupant and had to be taken to hospital with significant injuries, including broken bones. The shelter occupant who attacked him is facing serious criminal charges. Here is the police news release.
To say this is unacceptable is an understatement. This wouldn’t have happened had Mutual Aid not dropped that shelter in Starr Park on Saturday. What Mutual Aid is doing is dangerous and this attack on top of a previous fire in a Mutual Aid shelter very much underlines why. To install shelters anywhere Mutual Aid likes with no discussion with anyone else and with no supporting services is deeply problematic. There is a need for crisis shelters, but not in the dangerous way that Mutual Aid is doing it.
The alternative path is demonstrated by the Catholic Church. Over the last several months HRM and the Catholic Church have worked together to approve safe crisis shelters for installation on church property. The church shelters meet the building code, have heat and electricity, and have access to water/toilet on site or through nearby church buildings. Occupants are supported by church congregations or service providers and results have been quite successful, with almost no complaints or issues from any of the church sites. Over 20 have been installed and other faith organizations have started becoming involved too, including Christ Church in Downtown Dartmouth.
Mutual Aid could work with HRM and others in the same fashion, but they continue to seek confrontation. That’s because their efforts are as much a political project as they are a housing project, which is where Starr Park comes in.
In a presentation to Council last week, the PADS group asked HRM to relax camping restrictions in the Parks Bylaw. PADs indicated during discussion that the people who are homeless would naturally not choose a prominent, exposed or busy spot to shelter as they generally want to be left alone. That isn’t, however, what happened at Starr Park. Starr Park is an active park space next to a very well-used walkway. I have seen people with dogs, kids playing, and people sunbathing on the very spot where Mutual Aid dropped the shelter on Saturday. In choosing this prominent spot, Mutual Aid was trying to make a statement and the result of that statement is broken bones for an area resident and criminal charges for a shelter occupant who probably hasn’t had a very easy life.
So what do we do? There are big societal issues at play here, but Mutual Aid’s approach isn’t helping. HRM won’t evict people from public spaces if they have no place to go, which has put us in a bind in responding to these shelters. It’s next to impossible to stop Mutual Aid from placing shelters in our parks and immediately occupying them. HRM has actively created new space through the modular project (Dartmouth side complete, Halifax side almost there) and the rapid housing initiative, but the need is greater than the available space and there will always be some folks who just won’t be a good fit for the available options or would prefer not to accept help. So we’re going to have to think about where sheltering on public land will be permitted and under what circumstances. Not all parks are created equal, with some better able to support shelters than others. Starr Park isn’t a good fit.
I’m increasingly of the view that we have no real choice, but to designate some spaces for sheltering here in HRM. HRM staff will be coming to Council with a report, hopefully at our next Council meeting on May 3, that will consider all of these issues. What absolutely can’t continue is allowing a third party anonymous group to create encampment sites and then walk away. Yesterday’s violence underscores that and all that is wrong with Mutual Aid’s reckless approach.