Eviction of our homeless neighbours

This morning, some Halifax residents were woken by police officers at the door of their tent or shelter. Others who were perhaps checking Twitter for morning conversations about yesterday’s provincial election instead started their day with the dissonance of Halifax Regional Municipality, with a newly inclusive progress pride flag as part of its social media logo, issuing a statement announcing the immediate removal of homeless encampments on municipal property.

The progress pride flag, an intersectional variation of the rainbow flag with expanded colours, was created by designer Daniel Quasar to prominently centre both transgender people and members of 2SLGBTQ+ communities who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour). The city’s use of this message of inclusion and solidarity, along with other similar city statements and shows of support for justice movements such as BLM (Black Lives Matter) and Every Child Matters, falls flat when examining the city’s actions. It is especially dissonant considering the ways in which 2SLGBTQ+ and BIPOC individuals are at a higher risk of homelessness, precisely because of the ways in which stigma intersects with policy to disproportionately impact marginalized communities.

Once again, the Halifax Regional Municipality has decided to remove the shelters that were erected by Halifax Mutual Aid to assist those in need until they can be housed permanently. Municipal compliance officers along with staff members from Parks and Recreation and Halifax Regional Police are on site to enforce removal efforts. The pretext being used is that these emergency crisis shelters are a “risk to the health and safety of both the tent occupants and the public.” This pretext is difficult to maintain, given that individually constructed shelters offer far more health and safety benefits, in the midst of a pandemic than forcing homeless individuals into shelters.

Furthermore, the city states that it is doing so, because “all members of the public have a right to use and enjoy the entirety of municipal parks,” despite the fact that such actions clearly show that certain members of the public (those lucky enough to have housing) are being privileged over others. The profound irony of statements affirming the city’s “commitment to an empathy-based approach to homeless encampments that recognizes the human dignity of people experiencing homelessness” against the backdrop of such actions is deeply troubling.

As we post this, social workers are on the ground trying to help these individuals, who are being uprooted from structures that served as their home in the midst of a housing crisis the likes of which this city has not seen in decades, at a time when shelters are full, hotels are full and public health concerns are mounting regarding the Delta variant. The lack of empathy in this “empathy-based approach” must be called out. Particularly concerning is the timing of this decision to remove these shelters while a community social worker, street navigator and advocate who supports these residents was reportedly away getting married. Such timing, if not coincidental, reflects a strategy which is anything but empathetic.

It is heartening to watch so many individuals and organizations pour into the parks to advocate for those that the system would like to criminalize, silence and banish. As many of our own members join in with other concerned citizens to chant, “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” as well as “housing, not cops!” the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers (NSCSW) reaffirms our advocacy to address the housing crisis.

Recently, we joined together with the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and several other key stakeholders and community leaders to try to envision effective solutions for our housing crisis. We used our Social Policy Framework together, to create an innovative approach that can ensure that people with housing needs are able to access this basic human right. Most of the calls to action in the resulting report are for the province, but municipal governments also have a key role in housing their residents.

Halifax’s government could have embraced this comprehensive and creative proposal, and been willing to think about new ways to support those currently experiencing homelessness, and increase meaningful access to safe, permanently affordable, secure, supported and adequate housing in the municipality in partnership with the province. Instead, it hides behind a seemingly inclusive façade while perpetuating violence upon the most poor and vulnerable in our society.

It is our hope that our newly elected provincial officials will listen to these pleas for justice and equity, and work to resolve this crisis without further harming and criticizing those who have already been victimized by an unjust and immoral system that is leaving behind an increasingly large group of Nova Scotians.

Nadia Siritsky
NSCSW Professional Practice and Advocacy Consultant