Guest Blog – My contribution to a stormy Twitterverse

(I’ve taken the liberty of copying this blog from Lisa Roberts, former MLA and current candidate for MP, to preserve it for posterity)

Dear friends, colleagues, supporters and detractors, in #Halifax and Dartmouth and the Twitterverse –

I have found it quite distressing to read my Twitter feed over the past few days. In general, about half of the people I follow are local, chosen because I learn from and respect you. And it`s been hard to see municipal colleagues – namely Sam Austin and Waye Mason whose collaboration and leadership I rely on – being held to account in ways that have seemed unnecessarily critical. In general, I hope the temperature goes down a bit.

Here are a few contextual things I want to contribute to the conversation about temporary shelters:

Housing and homelessness are provincial responsibilities. (Prior to the 1990s, it was municipal and thanks to the Halifax Housing Commission and significant federal funding that largely ended in 1993 with federal Liberal austerity, Halifax Needham is dotted with cooperatives and former coops now owned by the province.)

Speaking at a training for Out of the Cold Shelter workers on Dec. 9.

Speaking at a training for Out of the Cold Shelter workers on Dec. 9.

These responsibilities have not been assumed with vigour or urgency by this Liberal provincial government.  Halifax and United Way partnered to do a baseline report in 2015. It showed that about 20% of households in HRM cannot afford market rents; yet only about 4% of rental stock was in the non-market sector (coops, and non-profit and public housing. Since then, the population of Halifax has grown by about 50,000 people and the province has sat at tables, with Halifax and other partners, where – according to one regular – they haven’t moved a peanut. There is a critical lack of affordable rental housing in Bridgewater, New Glasgow, Antigonish and Inverness too, to name a few places where I have direct knowledge.

Recently, Halifax has done a number of things – both with funding accessed directly from the federal government and with planning changes – to enable more density and contribute to meeting the housing needs for low-income residents.

But the responsibility is provincial.

Mind you, since I was elected in 2016, there have been three CEOs of Housing Nova Scotia and two Deputy Ministers of Municipal Affairs and Housing. So the actual person with the job description of tackling affordable housing and homelessness has hardly lasted long enough to learn the file. I can’t imagine that they would not reach the conclusion, a few months in, that solutions to the complex problem require significant provincial spending. Perhaps that has been politically unpalatable?

But still, the responsibility is provincial.

In July, I took some time to assemble one blog post with links to questions I put to the Premier and the Housing Minister in pre-COVID times. And I also shared a speech (from Province House! When it sat! Scroll to 3:14 to watch!) about inclusionary zoning, a power requested by Halifax from the Province to help it incentivize affordable housing creation.  Maybe the next Premier will respond?

Because the responsibility is provincial.

In fall of 2019, all the shelters were full. That was before COVID. When COVID arrived, there was a rapid decision to spend federal funds on hotel rooms to enable social distancing. Limited provincial dollars were also spent on hotel rooms and on pop-up shelters, and then on renovations to shelters.

This fall – especially before temporary rent control and a ban on renovictions were finally brought in under the State of Emergency – we continued to lose deeply affordable rental stock. A significant number of people experiencing homelessness have lost housing due to unaffordable rent.

As weather got colder and I regularly walked past tents, I joined with various leaders in the non-profit sector to ask for the province to commit to hotel room nights this winter. See:

https://www.saltwire.com/news/provincial/advocate-urges-nova-scotia-to-provide-hotel-rooms-to-address-hrm-homelessness-crisis-522520/

https://www.thechronicleherald.ca/opinion/local-perspectives/commentary-shelters-no-solution-to-homelessness-521882/

https://www.lisarobertsmla.ca/blog/2020/11/30/a-letter-from-dr-margaret-casey

https://www.lisarobertsmla.ca/newsletter/2020/12/1/december-enewsletter

The province is funding a new temporary shelter operated by the Mi`kmaw Friendship Centre and another by the North End Community Health Centre, which together added 40 beds to the shelter capacity on January 1 and 2. I thank Halifax council for boxing the province into that move by first soliciting federal Rapid Housing dollars directly. The provincial commitment to these shelter beds is for only one year, until those longer term projects come online. Those 40 beds, with Out of the Cold also operating a 25 bed shelter, bring us back to the approximately the shelter capacity that existed prior to COVID.

But shelters are not homes.

It is important to hold politicians to account. Given that responsibility for housing and homelessness is provincial, I hope many will join me in holding the Premier and the Housing Minister accountable. Early in 2020, they expanded funding for housing support workers. Now more than 30 people work full-time to help homeless clients find permanent housing. But – though motels and many hotel rooms are empty today – there has been no investment in actual, dignified housing.

Note that the province will spend $500 million on highway and bridge construction and repair this year; with federal dollars, it has committed to spending $513 million on housing over the next 10 years.

Tweeps, I hope you will extend compassion – above all, to those who sleep rough or otherwise are experiencing homelessness, but also to municipal politicians who use ungainly tools and inadequate information to address problems for which they are not responsible. And finally, to those who self-organize imperfectly.

May productive conversations continue, most likely not on Twitter.

NOTE: The Affordable Housing Commission, struck at the end of November, is now accepting public comments. You can share your thoughts at calling 1-833-743-0777 or emailing affordablehousingcommission@novascotia.ca .