For the people living in tents on a baseball field in Lower Sackville, N.S., a group of strangers has become a lifeline.
Close to 40 tents are clustered around the field on Cobequid Road, providing shelter for people who have nowhere else to go. Some were recently evicted, some have been living in their vehicles for months and some have been on the streets for years.
And as Halifax’s homeless population climbs beyond 1,000, members of the newly formed Gated Community Association say they couldn’t stand by and watch people sleep outside with few supports.
“It’s awful to see people were living in this situation, obviously,” said Sarah Veinotte, one of the members of the group.
“But personally, I found it really rewarding to get to know these people and to see them as human beings and to help them to feel a little bit more dignified.”
The group started as a Facebook page in September, where people could offer support and resources for those living in the encampment. The page now has more than 5,000 followers.
The group has also become a registered non-profit organization with a six-person executive team.
Volunteers organize nightly hot meals, wash clothes, collect donations and buy necessities like heaters and propane, search for available housing, and help people navigate the health-care system — sometimes even sitting with them in the emergency department for hours.
The group’s president Nikki Greer said most of the executive members didn’t know each other before they banded together — they all just felt a moral obligation.
“When you see the tremendous need that is taking place here, you can’t walk away and not think about it,” Greer said. “You can’t not initiate change.”
Many of the usual supports like women’s shelters, homeless shelters and treatment centres are stretched beyond capacity.
Judy Joudrey, 74, had been staying in a tent at the ball field with her two dogs for close to three months. She had a budget of more than $1,500 monthly, but she couldn’t find an apartment.
“We called all around for other shelters, but there was none vacant, so they gave me a tent and an air mattress,” she said. “And that’s what I came with.”
The members of the non-profit found Joudrey an apartment to rent, and helped her move in the first week of November.
Joudrey said she loved her new apartment from the first moment she saw it, but leaving the ball field is bittersweet.
“It’ll be hard because they are all so nice to you, you know, they make you feel like family.”
Veinotte said she’s happy Joudrey has a permanent roof over her head, but seeing seniors living in tents shows the government isn’t doing enough.
“We’ve been trying to meet as many of their needs as we can,” she said. “But you know, we’re just regular people who are working full-time jobs and have our own responsibilities. And frankly, we’re all paying our taxes for the government to do this for us.”
Province working on solutions
In early October, the provincial government announced two pilot projects aimed at reducing homelessness across Nova Scotia, with particular focus in the Halifax Regional Municipality.
The province is planning to build its first tiny home community on the same ball field in Lower Sackville. It will have 52 units to provide housing for about 62 people. Thirty units will be move-in ready by next summer, while the entire community is expected to be complete a year from now.
The province and HRM are also partnering to keep a municipal-owned campground in Dartmouth open through the winter, for people who are living in their RVs.
In addition to the tiny homes, the province is buying 200 temporary shelters produced by Pallet, a North American shelter provider. Half of these shelters will be placed in HRM.
Community Services Minister Trevor Boudreau said in an interview Monday that the shelters should be open in mid-December, though the locations have still not been finalized.
Boudreau said some people staying at the ball field could move into some of the temporary shelters, or the new winter overnight shelter in Dartmouth.
“We’re not interested in kicking people off of where they’re living right now,” Boudreau said. “We want to support them to get to where they need to go.”
But the Gated Community Association is still worried about people on the ball field being displaced during the tiny homes’ construction, and say they haven’t had adequate communication about when people will need to move, or where they will be going.
“They’ll make an announcement and we don’t know that it’s happening,” said Samantha Banks, the vice-president of the non-profit. “We can’t prepare these individuals. The residents have so many questions, we have zero answers.”
Banks said the group wants to work together with the municipal and provincial governments in any way they can.
“We are begging them, like literally begging them to let us help,” Banks said. “We want to be involved in this. We are here and we’re not going anywhere.”