CBRM Council Considers the Homeless

I tried to cover yesterday’s CBRM virtual council meeting but the technical difficulties were such that it proved impossible — and even had the sound been crystal clear, it ran into the 3:00 p.m. COVID-19 update with the premier and Dr. Robert Strang, which I also wanted to cover. The minutes from this meeting have not yet been posted. When they are, I will add to this article.

Technical difficulties during Tuesday's CBRM virtual council meeting.

Technical difficulties during Tuesday’s CBRM virtual council meeting.

I was unable to hear the debate around measures to protect homeless and vulnerable citizens during this pandemic, but there is something telling to me in the way the Mayor — who wrote the memo to council on the subject — billed it, that is, cost-first:

$134,000 Homeless and Vulnerable Citizen Support Measures

Did he lead with the “$134,000” figure because he thinks it reflects well on us that we’re spending such a substantial sum to protect the less fortunate? I hope not, especially since the actual cost to the CBRM, which is cost-sharing these projects on a 50/50 basis with the province, is just $67,000.

Housing the homeless should be a municipal priority at any time, but the case for doing so becomes incontrovertible during a pandemic, when your community is only as safe as its most vulnerable citizens.

In Halifax yesterday, the Out of the Cold emergency shelter announced it was renting a floor at an empty Halifax-area hotel to house “about 20 clients.” The rationale is simple: Public Health is telling us over and over and over again that we must stay at home and you can’t stay at home if you don’t have one. According to the CBC:

Jeff Karabanow, co-founder of Out of the Cold emergency shelter in Halifax, said pop-up shelters in gymnasiums and community centres have alleviated some of the pandemic-related strain for homeless people, but ultimately, people need private spaces…

If demand and resources grow, Karabanow said the hotel could potentially shelter another 60 people…

Karabanow said individual units afford people the kind of “dignified and safe” shelter his organization has long advocated for, but the current outbreak of COVID-19 adds further justification for governments to support this type of housing.

“It’s always been a social justice argument to get people housed. Now it’s also a public health argument,” Karabanow said.

The CBC says the Out of the Cold shelter is receiving federal funding for the move, some of which has been funneled through the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS).



So what has the CBRM got planned?

Well, rather than looking for alternatives to homeless shelters:

The Planning Department has been working with the Cape Breton Association for Housing to assist with the reopening of the Margaret Street shelter as well as expanded capacity efforts at the Townsend St. shelter.

This is better, obviously, than crowding too many into a single shelter where proper social distancing is not possible, but it’s not optimal.

The municipality is also consulting with the United Way of Cape Breton — that great gatekeeper of assistance to the poor — to:

…gain a better understanding of the supports and delivery mechanisms for the Atlantic Compassion Fund and other recently announced federal funding.

That makes it sound like the Atlantic Compassion Fund is federally funded, but it’s not — it’s a charitable fund established by Tom Rose, president of Atlantic Business Interiors, who will “match dollar-for-dollar” the first $100,000 of contributions made by donors across the Atlantic Region. I can’t find any record of how much it has raised to date or how the funds have been spent.

Actual federal funding to aid the homeless was announced on March 29 — over a week ago:

We continue to support people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 outbreak by providing $157.5 million to the Reaching Home initiative.

The funding could be used for a range of needs such as purchasing beds and physical barriers for social distancing and securing accommodation to reduce overcrowding in shelters.

You’ll note “securing accommodation to reduce overcrowding in shelters” is an approved use of these (unfortunately, limited) federal funds. The CBRM is also:

…in contact with the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Office of Public Heath to liaise and collaborate, as well as communicate, in support of community delivery partners.

That outta stop the virus in its tracks.

Anything else?

Well, two 90-day projects have been identified — this is where the 50/50 cost-sharing with the province comes in. The first, on which the municipality has been working “at the request of the Ally Centre and community partners” is a “hygiene/shower/clothes washing program for homeless and vulnerable populations, including youth.”

The sites involved are:

  • Undercurrent Youth Centre, Glace Bay
  • Undercurrent Youth Centre, Sydney
  • Ally Centre Sydney
  • Community Cares Youth Outreach, Sydney Mines

Costs will be as follows:


Transit will be available free of charge “for persons accessing the sites from other communities.”

In short, our response to the pandemic seems to be to provide homeless and vulnerable people with services to which they should always have had access.



But it gets better. Recognizing that with “retail and gas stations closing washroom facilities public access to washroom facilities no longer exists” the CBRM’s community partners have identified 13 likely sites for portable toilets.

The Ally Centre has even had to come up with the funds for cleaning the sites, which will be located as follows:

To be clear, I understand why the Ally Centre would push for this — homeless people need access to washroom facilities and they need them now — and if this were a stop-gap measure, I would understand, but it’s a three-month measure, which suggests it’s not the stop-gap, it’s the solution.

There is no mention of handwashing stations, although the Ally Centre told me it believed such facilities would be included. VICE published an article about the dilemma faced by homeless people without access to public washrooms today, noting that the portable toilets being used in a number of Canadian cities are usually stocked with hand sanitizer, which the epidemiologist they spoke with said was simply not as good as soap and water in preventing the spread of the virus.

In fact, the use of portable toilets on construction sites is being flagged as risky from a public health perspective in some jurisdictions. This is from the Boston Globe:

…at construction sites, workers not only share space. They are known to share water bottles, and their restroom facilities are porta-potties, sometimes shared by dozens of workers, with no running water for thorough handwashing. And in a pandemic, that puts health at risk…

This is yet another symbol of the great class divide exposed by the coronavirus. Developers, architects, and project managers can work from the comfort and safety of their homes. Construction workers can’t build an office tower, luxury condo, or affordable housing project anywhere but on-site. Why should their lives be worth any less than those who benefit from their labors?

If there’s a “great class divide” between construction workers and developers, there’s an even greater one between those of us who can “shelter in place” because we have a place and those who can’t.



This is the aspect of the CBRM’s approach to the problem I don’t understand — the apparent acceptance that some people will continue to wander the streets (or ride public transit to take a shower and wash their clothes) at a time when we’ve been told, in no uncertain terms, to “Stay the Blazes Home.”

The other part I don’t understand is the stinginess of the CBRM’s response — $67,000 in spending to protect vulnerable citizens (thereby protecting ourselves) during the same meeting at which council was asked to approve funding to hire consultants to advise on updating our Municipal Planning Strategy and “review” our bloated police force. The same meeting during which a budget was presented for renovations to Centre 200 that will cost us $17 million over three years and seem designed to meet the requests of the multi-millionaire who owns the local hockey team:


I feel like the municipality hasn’t really come to grips with how serious this threat is — especially in a community with an ageing population and an overtaxed healthcare system. News that the first COVID-19 death in the province probably happened at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital and that the result, according to the Post, has been “dozens” of healthcare workers there being forced to self-isolate, should have us all so terrified we’ll doing anything — even if it requires loosening the municipal purse strings.

We should also be thinking of what happens after the public health restrictions are lifted. Are we really just going to return the Porta-Potties and allow the homeless to go back to using the washrooms in gas stations?

Featured image: Porta-Potties by David ShankboneCC BY-SA