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Slow shelter: U.S.-made homeless structures still on hold in Nova Scotia

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The much-anticipated Pallet Shelters for the homeless in Nova Scotia haven't even shipped from the company that makes them yet.

That information was revealed at Nova Scotia's Standing Committee on Public Accounts Wednesday.

Nova Scotia’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts met on Nov. 29, 2023 with one item on the agenda: Investments in affordable housing programming. (Bruce Frisko/CTV Atlantic)

The government says it needs to make sure the shelter villages it wants are properly set up, but opposition leaders say it's a clear case of missing the boat, with December on the doorstep,

Announced in Nova Scotia six weeks ago, the purchase of 200 units from the U.S.-based company certainly seemed a fast and innovative solution to help the growing homeless population.

The company wants assurances its standards will be met.

"It's a standard that the company, Pallet, has that ensures the safety and good quality of life of the people who live in those communities," said Melissa MacKinnon, Nova Scotia's Deputy Community Services Minister, adding the province is working on its own standard for creating Pallet villages.

"We have to make sure we have a service provider attached to each of the locations, whether it's a place like Beacon House in Sackville for example, to ensure that the food needs are met, there are washrooms on site, water - that it's a standard quality of life for people," she said.

The province is closest to setting up in HRM, but the process is complicated, said MacKinnon.

“Just trying to make sure the land is serviceable, can be cleared, close to transportation - those kinds of things.

“The pallet shelters themselves can go up very quickly. We just need to make sure these standards are in place."

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, MacKinnon admitted the process is taking longer than expected when it was announced in October.

"It is, but this is a pilot project, and in this housing crisis, we're looking at new, innovative ideas to try to do these things - we're the first province to try to do this, so we're working through them, but we'll get there," she said.

Pressed by reporters, N.S. Housing's senior executive director defended the government's initiatives on the homelessness file.

"We are doing more here and now than I believe has been done in decades to support low income housing," said Vicki Elliott-Lopez, who was also named chair of the N.S. HRM Executive Panel on Housing earlier this month.

But opposition leaders say all of it is taking too long and the homeless will suffer because of it.

"I mean, I think the government sat on their hands. We had the Minister of Community Services compare the increasing rate of homelessness, which has nearly doubled, to summer camping," said Liberal Leader Zach Churchill.

"If they'd taken action this summer, the minister and the political leadership of this government, we might be in a different position now, where people actually have these shelters in place for winter."

"It's December, and I think, overall what we see in terms of the Pallet shelters and the emergency shelter situation is, I'm not sure what was happening over the summer months," said NDP Leader Claudia Chender, acknowledging the complexity of the project, but adding it should have been dealt with.

"I hear the part about 'there needs to be supports', but again - we have not planned sufficiently for the situation that we find ourselves in," said Chender. "If we had, programs like the pallets would have already been delivered.

"All I can say is, I hope they come tomorrow and I'll hope every day after tomorrow that they come that day, but we don't have an answer yet on when they're arriving and I know there are many people, particularly in the HRM-context, in Sackville, who are anxiously awaiting their arrival, and in the rest of the province, we don't even know where they're going to go."

The volunteer Facebook group helping the encampment in Lower Sackville wrote to all three levels of government, seeking permission to set-up a warming centre at the site, which was battered by Monday's storm.

At the moment, there's no actual timeline for the delivery of the shelters, but the province says it's working on other initiatives, including discussions with Ottawa about some federal land in the HRM.

"I can tell you very little at this stage. It's very early days," said Adrian Mason with the N.S. Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing Director of Development and Partnerships.

"We've had two meetings. There's a parcel of land that's been identified and a community housing organization that may be a suitable partner, and we're in discussions to see if we can advance that project," he said, adding the land in question was not the Shannon Park site.

Encouraging news, but cold comfort for the scores of Nova Scotians heading into December living in tents. 

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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