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Out of the shelter and into the streets

New coalition will fight for affordable housing

by Kaley Kennedy

Gillian Zubizarreta, Settlement Coordinator with the Halifax Refugee Clinic and member of the Common Front, acknowledges that the coalition still has a lot of work to do
Gillian Zubizarreta, Settlement Coordinator with the Halifax Refugee Clinic and member of the Common Front, acknowledges that the coalition still has a lot of work to do

When Halifax’s volunteer-run Out of the Cold Shelter opened in late November, organizers knew it was not a solution to the growing housing crisis in Halifax. 

Now that the shelter has closed for the warmer months, the shelter’s political action committee is throwing its energy into the Common Front for Housing in Nova Scotia, a group that is mounting political pressure to fight for affordable housing in the province.

“The only way we get affordable housing is by putting pressure on the government to do it,” says Wayne MacNaughton, an anti-poverty activist and organizer with the Common Front. 

Currently, there are about 12,300 public housing units in Nova Scotia. About 7,700 are housing for seniors and 3,700 are family units, leaving 900 units for other housing needs. The province also provides about 800 rent supplements to low-income people. Nova Scotia has no form of rent control. 

According to the Community Action on Homelessness 2010 Report Card on Homelessness, only 350 new social housing units have been built in Halifax over the past ten years. In 2009, the average cost of a bachelor apartment in the city increased 6.5 per cent to about $638 per month.

Capp Larsen, the Out of the Cold Shelter co-coordinator, explains that the political action committee is the result of shelter volunteers witnessing the direct impact of gaps in affordable housing. 

“We know what the gaps are because we’re the ones who have been filling them,” says Larsen. This year, 208 different people used the Out of the Cold shelter for a total of 2,118 overnight stays. The shelter was at capacity 43 per cent of the time and turned away about 75 people this winter.

The political action committee formed a few months before the shelter’s closing date of April 30, and arose out of discussions of the shelter’s committee of on-call volunteers.

“At on-call committee meetings we were talking about how the shelter was going to close, but that it will re-open next year and the year after,” says Larsen. “We were basically filling the gaps and we recognized that the government was downloading services onto our volunteer-run shelter and we weren’t really challenging that.” 

On May 10, Nova Scotia Minister of Community Services Denise Peterson-Rafuse and Federal Minister of National Defense Peter MacKay announced that the federal and provincial governments will be investing about $14 million in affordable housing in Halifax.

“This investment will mean more families, seniors and people with disabilities will be living in safe, comfortable, accessible homes," said Minister Peterson-Rafuse in a press release. 

MacNaughton says the funding will not go far enough, however. “Most of this money is going to repairs and upgrades. It’s necessary, but it’s also because the government has been deferring essential maintenance.” 

Only about a quarter of the funds, $3 million, will go to eighteen new affordable housing units. These new units are part of an addition to an existing housing complex in Spryfield and are intended for seniors and people living with disabilities.

“It’s good that there will be some new units, but it’s not exactly keeping up with the demand. Not even close,” said MacNaughton. 

The Common Front for Housing in Nova Scotia will be fighting for the affordable housing the province needs, but is first doing the groundwork of establishing a strong base and common vision. 

Over the past month, organizers have undertaken a province-wide outreach strategy to build the Common Front, contacting groups and individuals working on affordable housing issues and communities who have a stake in advocating for affordable and quality housing. The list of communities includes labour and student organizations, the black community, Muslim and Christian faith-based organization, school advisory councils, and professional organizations.

On May 18, the Common Front held its third public meeting. About 50 people attended and started to develop the guiding principles and set priorities for action. 

A few dozen organizations were represented at the meeting, including faith-based groups, service providers, advocacy organizations, and tenants' associations. There continue to be challenges to doing outreach, especially beyond the HRM. 

“It’s hard to meaningfully engage with people across the province when all of our meetings are in the HRM,” explains Larsen, who has been involved with the Common Front’s provincial outreach subcommittee. 

The majority of the meeting was spent reviewing the guiding principles. Meeting participants were divided small groups to discuss one of the four principles. 

Some of the guiding principles were met with the unanimous support of attendees, while others were more controversial. 

Nearly every head in the room nodded in agreement to one group’s statement, “Housing shouldn’t be a reward, it should be the first step to health and well-being.”

People were less supportive of the guiding principle “We believe housing should be based on need, rather than profit.” Concerns were raised by group members that profit as a potential incentive should not be ruled out entirely. People’s opinions on the role of the private sector in providing housing were especially divergent. 

Overall, organizers thought that the meeting was successful.

“There is power in numbers,” says Gillian Zubizarreta, Settlement Coordinator with the Halifax Refugee Clinic. “When we get different people who have different experiences, but a common interest together, it makes us stronger.”

Still, she acknowledges that this is only the beginning. 

“There is still a lot of work to be done. We need to get a lot of people together in order to make an impact. If all these words don’t turn into action, then it’s futile.”

Kaley Kennedy is an activist in Halifax. She recently began working with the Common Front.

The Common Front’s coordinating committee will meet next week to compile the notes from Tuesday’s meeting and decide on the next steps. Information on upcoming meetings and on how to get involved can be found here.

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