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Halifax council to discuss homelessness MOUs, extending Dartmouth emergency shelter

Halifax Regional Municipal councillors will be discussing this week whether to move ahead with negotiating Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) to address homelessness and housing.

A staff report being presented to council on Tuesday takes a look at how other municipalities have used MOUs to address the housing crisis. Examples included Victoria, Vancouver, Guelph, Ont., and Surrey, B.C.

The report points out that while MOUs are “generally, non-binding” and may not give the municipality any legal recourse, they can “help to structure and strengthen partnerships.”

MOUs lay out in written form aspects of collaboration: length of the partnership, desired goals, how to evaluate performance and any risks or financial obligations.

The MOUs could cover emergency shelter operations, housing construction, or land development. Typically, the MOUs would involve the municipality, the province, non-profits and private-sector developers.

“Given the complexity of the housing crisis, staff recommend that HRM not restrict itself to a bilateral (provincial-municipal) agreement. Multilateral, private-public MOUs should be explored,” the report says.

The report further says that across the country, “MOUs have helped to both attract and direct public-private resources to house the unhoused.”

In May 2022, while discussing a proposal for designated tent sites for people experiencing homelessness, council directed the CAO to provide this staff report on negotiating an MOU with the province.

“The report should include defining the roles of each order of government and specific actions to support and prevent homelessness within the HRM,” the motion stated.

According to the By Name List (BNL) from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, there were 874 actively homeless individuals in HRM as of March 14. The data is based on self-identification at the time the form was completed.

Last month, council endorsed a framework to address homelessness, which staff say should serve as the “bedrock” for any MOUs that are negotiated.

The framework lists a number of initiatives, including staffing an additional street navigator and building a full-time daily drop-in centre that would operate year-round.

‘Housing issues don’t go away in the summer months’

Meanwhile, Deputy Mayor Sam Austin has also submitted a motion asking council to approve a letter from the mayor to the province to ask that the emergency shelter in Dartmouth remain open beyond the winter months — or that alternate space be provided.

During the cold weather, the province has funded the shelter at Christ Church Hall on Dundas Street in downtown Dartmouth, which has been operated by the non-profit group, 902 Man Up.

Austin, councillor for Dartmouth Centre, points out in his motion that the shelter has provided “badly needed space for people with few options.”

“The Province recently wrote Christ Church indicating they would terminate the lease for the space as of May 31. Unless the Province has an alternate plan that hasn’t been shared, when the shelter closes there will be no emergency shelter spaces in Dartmouth,” the motion states.

The motion goes on to say that the “old model” of scaling up shelter spaces in cold winter months does not work because “housing issues don’t go away in the summer months.”

Austin mentions that the solution to summer homelessness “shouldn’t be an HRM park,” in reference to the municipality’s move last summer that designated certain parks where unhoused people could camp.

“The Province should adopt an approach of only closing shelter spaces if the actual need has decreased, not based on outdated notions around seasonal need,” the motion concludes.

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