As the nights grow colder, street outreach worker Lucas Goltz tries to think of creative ways to help the growing number of people living in tents in downtown Halifax stay warm.
“We have to resort to giving them a propane stove with one burner to heat up their tent, or to give them some mitts or some extra socks, or to give them those hand warmers that they’ll slip in their pants to keep themselves warm,” said Goltz, the program co-ordinator for the Navigator Outreach Program.
He said some people don’t want to live in a shelter, but even if they do, most of the city’s shelters are full as more than 1,000 homeless people wait for housing.
This can lead to a dangerous balancing act.
“We don’t want people burning down their own tents and creating a very risky situation for themselves,” Goltz said. “But it’s also very risky for them to be sleeping overnight in minus temperatures.”
According to Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency, instances of fires involving unhoused people have more than tripled since 2021. The fire department said they’ve recorded 38 outdoor fires involving homeless people this year, and they believe there are other incidents that weren’t captured.
This coincides with the number of homeless people doubling in 2022 and again in 2023.
Worried for safety
In a statement, Peter Andrews, deputy fire chief of operations, said he is very concerned for the safety of people forced to sleep outdoors and in tents.
Andrews said Halifax Fire is a member of Halifax Regional Municipality’s homeless task force and visits tent encampments for wellness checks and to educate people on fire and cooking safety.
“These efforts have led to the provision of fire extinguishers, and propane stoves and barbecues as an alternative to open fires for cooking,” Andrews said. “However, as the temperature drops, residents are once again relying on open fires as a heat source.”
Goltz said many people don’t sleep because their tent is so cold, and some walk around all night to try to keep warm. Some of his clients have experienced illnesses related to living outside, and he worries about hypothermia.
He said he’s been trying to switch people from summer tents to winter tents, and provide insulated tarps. He’s been giving out butane stoves and heaters and telling people to try to be safe and not fall asleep when the heater is on.
In the past month, two people died in tent fires in Edmonton and three people died in tents in the Kingston, Ontario region. Goltz says the same could happen in Halifax.
“There’s a lot of working poor out here … they’re brand new to all this,” Goltz said. “There is a real risk that people could find themselves in a situation where they’re desperate, they’re very tired, they’re not thinking through how they’re using their heating materials correctly, and it just takes one mistake for there to be something fatal.”
At a 40-person encampment at a baseball field in Lower Sackville, a non-profit called the Gated Community Association is also trying to prepare people for a winter outside.
Samantha Banks, the organization’s vice-president, said they’re providing insulated tarps, warm clothes, and a type of propane camping heater designed to turn off if carbon dioxide levels get too high or if they tip over.
The group is also bringing in extra carbon monoxide monitors and educating residents to keep the heaters on a flat surface away from other belongings. But she knows nothing is foolproof.
“It’s always going to be a fear, but the alternative really is they’d freeze to death if we didn’t give them something,” Banks said. “There’s not going to be a way that we can eliminate all risk. This is the lesser of evils.”
Is there a safe way to heat a tent or RV?
Matt Covey, division chief of fire prevention, said the fire department does not recommend using a solid fuel heater in an enclosed space, because they produce deadly carbon monoxide and can tip over and start a fire.
He said the only safe way to heat a tent or an RV is with an electrical heater, though he knows accessing electricity can be difficult for people camping.
Covey said people living in RVs should avoid smoking inside and make sure their smoke detectors and carbon monoxide monitors are in working order. He recommended switching to a photoelectric smoke alarm that is less likely to go off when cooking.
He said he understands adding extra insulation for heat, but people should make sure the vehicle’s exhaust, vents, windows and doors aren’t blocked.
Covey said Halifax Fire is expecting more calls this winter related to people living in tents and RVs.
“We’re very concerned about all the hazards that are present,” he said. “Hopefully everyone is doing everything as safely as they can.”
‘People need to be inside’
Goltz said though people are trying to be safe, “people need to be inside.” He pointed to the new 24/7 shelter that opened in Dartmouth Friday, but said that won’t be the answer for everyone.
“For the fifty [people] that will get in there, there’s still going to be hundreds left out here in the cold,” Goltz said. “And so we need affordable housing.”
“I’m hoping that our leaders both in the province and the city, which are some good leaders there, are putting their heads together to think through how we do that.”