Roaming | The first neighborhood of prefabricated shelters built in the suburbs of Halifax

(Halifax) Three neatly aligned rows of tiny shelters, each with a lockable bright blue door, are set up and occupied in a quiet Halifax suburb, as the provincial government gradually rolls out what it touts as an important part of its solution to homelessness.

Standing near the gated entrance to this community, Beacon House Shelter board member Jim Gunn describes the 70-square-foot (6.5 square meter) cubic prefabricated shelters – named after the American company that makes them – as a temporary solution.

“Our biggest concern is that this housing never becomes and is never seen as permanent, but there is no affordable housing,” the retired educator explained during a recent tour of the property in Lower Sackville, about three weeks after opening. “These shelters will stay here until we find somewhere else for people to go.” »

The province is following the lead of Kelowna, British Columbia, and 124 other sites in North America, by introducing units assembled from fiberglass insulated panels. They are made by Pallet Shelter Inc., a for-profit social enterprise based in Everett, Washington, that has now deployed about 5,000 shelters in North America and has expanded into Canada.

The $630,000 facility, which includes 19 sleeping units, separate washrooms and laundry facilities, is part of the province’s $7.5 million purchase of 200 prefabricated shelters. Nova Scotia says it is the first provincial government to make such a purchase from an American manufacturer.

In the first weeks after Lower Sackville’s plan for land next to the existing Beacon House shelter was announced, the nonprofit and its believer board faced backlash. Online petitions opposed the site and around 170 people attended a public meeting where some criticized its location near a school and community leisure centre.

“I’m really concerned, because we want to be good neighbors,” Mr. Gunn said, adding that his group is determined to change public perceptions.

Among its key messages: there is a support system for residents of the new community, funded annually by $900,000 from the province. This includes two housing aides at the nearby shelter – including a social worker – and a mental health counselor available three times a week. A team of volunteers from religious and community groups prepare meals for residents.

Jim Gunn also notes that those selected to move into the units must “be able to live responsibly and respectfully” and must sign an agreement including 38 rules and warnings of potential removal if community standards are not met.

When The Canadian Press visited, Beacon House did not allow any interviews with residents, and efforts to reach residents through independent support groups were unsuccessful.

Encourage change on both sides

Amy King, co-founder of Pallet, said in a phone interview that she expects community opposition to turn to support as she sees the results.

“In general, people are afraid of what they don’t know. But we also have a lot of interesting data from sites showing a reduction in crime, up to 30%, in neighborhoods where such shelters are set up, she noted.

Mme King insisted that security measures, including a chain-link fence, are designed to protect residents, not lock them in.

“It’s a common myth that homeless people engage in criminal activity. (…) The vast majority are victims of predatory behavior – drug addiction, prostitution, etc. – brought to their doorstep because of their vulnerability,” she explained. Mme King says the company’s name is based on the definition of “pallet” as a straw mattress, which she says connotes people “taken out of their current circumstances and toward something better.”

Nikki Greer, president of the nonprofit group that supported residents of a tent encampment in Lower Sackville, said in an interview that only two of her former residents remain in the Pallet homes.

She says the proximity to a bus route and access to food are positive aspects, but she worries whether the existing support is enough for people who have been “sleeping rough” for years. “Additional support is needed for these people…I just wish we had more support to address the root causes of homelessness,” she said.

Suzanne Ley, director of income assistance at the provincial Department of Community Services, said in a telephone interview that Pallet neighborhoods are considered by the province to be “transitional units for people to get back on their feet.”

When asked how long people would live there, Mme Ley responded that it would depend on housing availability. “We hope people can quickly access housing, move out and open the space to others,” she said.

The province’s next prefabricated shelter site will be in Kentville, a town in the Annapolis Valley with a population of about 6,000, where 20 of the units will be installed next to a provincial building in the town. However, Mme Ley doesn’t yet have an answer on whether all 200 units will be in place in the province before next winter, saying his team is still looking for suitable locations and other partners like Beacon House.

Jim Gunn says that while his group is happy to help the homeless, he hopes the structures — which can be easily dismantled and moved — won’t be on the property for decades. “We fear that the temporary period will be longer than we want,” he said.


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