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Community groups step in to help Halifax's homeless population

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A community takeover of two major tent encampments in the Halifax region sheds light on the gravity of the homeless crisis, but also exposes a contrast between the swift community mobilization and the government's sluggish response.

Currently, there are more than 25 tents set up in front of Halifax's City Hall in Grand Parade, where the majority are new ice fishing tents that have been installed on insulated wooden platforms, more suitable for the frigid temperatures.

"They have four windows, they have ventilation, there have two doors and you can actually stand in it," said Stephen Wilsack, a community volunteer who for the past three weeks has been living in the Grand Parade and helping to support the growing homeless population there.

The Halifax Regional Municipality initially contemplated clearing all tents from the Grand Parade before winter, but the site continues to grow with these new winter-resistant tents, considered more suitable by the community organizers who have helped fundraise to install them.

Wilsack and fellow volunteer Matthew Grant, have raised more than $30,000 already through their GoFundMe page and the number is expected to continue to climb with all the community support.

"Matthew and I are two good samaritans that came up here and volunteered our time," said Wilsack. "We are literally providing security and providing shelter for people who are coming in off of the street and providing them with food and clothing."

In Lower Sackville, a community group deploys a giant mess tent at another encampment located on a former baseball field on Cobequid Road.

The military-style tent offers warmth from a wood fire and a refuge during harsh weather and storms, which have toppled and blown tarps off tents and put those living there in danger from the elements.

"We've had so many storms where people have lost their tents and their tarps and their tarps and their heat and their shelter," said Matt Taylor, project manager with the volunteer group Cobequuid Gated Community. "This is a place (the tent) where people can go to get out of those conditions."

Like the efforts ongoing in Halifax at the Grand Parade, Taylor says the community-driven effort was inspired by a compassion for those who found themselves without a home and forced to live outside.

"All of us believed that it's inhumane and nobody should have to be living in tents, especially at this time of year," said Taylor.

Neither community groups receive any funding from the government but Taylor says they are looking for future funding to help continue their outreach work at the tent encampment.

"It's not ideal and obviously we want help from the authorities in the future, so I would urge them to step up, but I don't want to bad mouth them in such a way that they don't want to help," said Taylor.

On Thursday, the Tim Houston PC government allocated $650,000 to help

Shelter Nova Scotia hire additional outreach workers to help address the rising demand for homelessness assistance.

Shelter Nova Scotia's director of practice and development, Melissa Puddicombe, says the funding will enable them to expand their outreach worker staff from two to five, providing support during evening hours and on weekends, something they haven't been able to provide before.

"Right now we can't meet the current demand with the number of people we have," said Puddicombe. "The need is very high and so now we can expand to what we imagine is a team of five.”

"That means we can be more intentional and strategic by how we get out to people who are sleeping outside and how far we can reach, and mostly the hours we can work."

"We want vulnerable Nova Scotians to have a safe, dignified place to sleep,” said Minister of Community Services, Trevor Boudreau. “The reasons for homelessness are varied and complex and the solutions we bring forward need to be, as well. We are working hard with municipalities, community partners and others to find supportive solutions that meet the needs of people at risk of, or experiencing homelessness.”

Boudreau told media on Thursday the new emergency shelter that opened on Windmill Road in Dartmouth will also be expanding from 50 to 100 beds on Sunday.

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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