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6 months and counting: Homeless crisis could leave some struggling with mental health

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As all levels of government grapple with the homelessness crisis, it turns out we may be facing a tsumani of mental health issues down the road.

A high level advocate told a Nova Scotia government committee this week anyone homeless for more than six months often finds it much harder to recover.

On Tuesday, Michael Kabalen, the executive director of the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, told the Standing Committee on Human Resources 1,068 people in the Halifax Regional Municipality were experiencing homelessness.

But the group keeps a second list.

"765 - that's the number of people who've been in that situation for six months or more," said Kabalen.

"It's a long time. And the reason we track that differently is because, after six months, the outcomes become almost catastrophic. You can resolve your homelessness within six months, you've typically risen out of that and you won't return, but if six months or more go beyond, it is a catastrophe to your life, and it takes a lot more support for that individual," he said.

In Halifax's Grand Parade, a growing number of ice fishing tents have replaced a lot of the private shelters that have sat at the site for months.

Although small, they're significantly warmer, according to one of the two men behind the initiative.

"Absolutely life and death. These people are in survival mode," volunteer Matthew Grant told CTV News.

"Within the last 48 hours, we had a gentleman come by who was up in Victoria Park. He came down here. I think (the word) is kind of spreading. Within the last 48 hours, I personally have put four people in these red tents, where, if they had not been in those tents, they just would have been wandering the streets and probably would have been in the ER with hypothermia."

HRM Councillor Tony Mancini applauded the men's ongoing efforts, but noted there's only one real solution.

"It's tough. So, good for the Eskimo tents, but this is just a band aid, right? We need housing," said Mancini.

Helping unload supplies at the site where he now lives, resident Joel Probert puts the situation in perspective.

"We've all got traumas through our lives - a lot of us do. Plus, I worked as a paramedic, healthcare worker, search and rescue worker for years, and it's cumulative," said Probert.

"For your average person, something bad happens - they fall, down, they pick themselves up, they dust themselves off. For someone with a lot of life history, their house of cards collapses," he said.

Probert suffered serious mental trauma after a family tragedy.

"You lose your way. You're a chip adrift at sea. It's like, 'where do I even begin now?' I'm not worried about my credit score. I'm worried about my meal. I'm worried about the fact that I was really, really cold last night. I'm worried about being attacked again," said Probert, pointing to a black eye.

"Things like financial instability, housing insecurity, food insecurity - those are all things that take a big toll," registered psychologist Dayna Lee-Baggley told CTV News, but said she wasn't aware of any psychological principle based on the six month mark of homelessness.

"Typically, six months is often the point at which people describe switching from homelessness to chronic homelessness, but it's more like a data collection tool," said Lee-Baggley.

"So, we know homelessness will, have a big impact on people's mental health and their well being and that's why it's important to try to tackle that issue because there are some pretty significant implications for people's well being. For many people, if the housing insecurity stabilizes, and they have secure housing, a lot of their distress will be alleviated," she said.

At Grand Parade, Joel Probert ponders the question in light of the nine months he's lived there.

"I'm trying to maintain my focus. I'm trying to get better," he said after a pause.

"I'm trying to utilize the services. As a health-care worker, I had no idea how to navigate our social services system. I'm hoping to learn something and maybe take it back to my work when I'm feeling like myself again."

Asked if he had any advice for people on the verge of homelessness, he doesn't hesitate.

"Ask for help. Often. Be the squeaky wheel, because you really have to let you voice be heard because, if not, you will fall between the cracks," Probert said.

"I'm more equipped than anyone I've ever met out here to help myself and navigate the system, and it is not easy at all."

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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