Far from Halifax’s downtown, a suburban community tackles homelessness

Pam Gibson was volunteering at the Faith Baptist Church in the Halifax suburban community of Lower Sackville when a woman knocked on the door one day in late November looking for money or toiletries.

But there was nothing on hand to give out, so Gibson dug into her own purse and agreed to drive her to somewhere she needed to go.

“It was an epiphany, because I should have been able to do more,” said Gibson, who has lived in Lower Sackville for close to 30 years.

Open panhandling isn’t common in the community, but concerned citizens say there are still people in desperate need of help and they want to tackle the issue of “hidden homelessness.”

Representatives of a number of churches and non-profit groups have been meeting monthly since a forum on the issue was held last spring. There are plans to open a warming centre by February, although details of where and when are still being worked out.

Some people who are homeless have camped along Sackville River. (Robert Short/CBC)

Faith Baptist now has comfort kits available and Gibson has become interested in the issue of homelessness in her community.

“She kept saying, ‘This is not how I want to live.’ You know, she’s sleeping in the rough,” said Gibson. “You look at it differently when you see it face to face.”

Walter Regan, a well-known local environmentalist who helped create the Sackville River Association, said he has run into a number of people camping alongside the river.

“Over the years we have realized there is a need for some basic human help,” said Regan. “We’ve got to do something, because these are our neighbours and their problems have to be addressed.”

A group of churches and non-profits in Lower Sackville want to open a warming centre in the community. (Robert Short/CBC)

The number of calls to the local councillor about this issue has also increased. Steve Craig said in early December he had two cases of people who had their water or power disconnected and were one step away from being homeless. Residents have also called him with concerns about people sleeping in cars or cardboard boxes.

“Our libraries see them all the time, those who have nowhere else to go,” said Craig. “But then what happens at night?”

Mike Poworoznyk, a member of Rock Church and a former director of Metro Turning Point, a shelter in downtown Halifax, said he’s excited at the prospect of a warming centre.

“It’s early days, but we have the idea that if we can make a difference in one person’s life, we will have done something and something is better than nothing,” said Poworoznyk.

The group is also talking about long-term solutions. Craig has asked for municipal staff to prepare a report on providing a street outreach co-ordinator, also known as a “navigator.”

“A navigator can learn about the root causes; you don’t have a roof over your head, why is that?” said Craig.

Coun. Steve Craig has asked municipal staff to look into providing a street outreach co-ordinator for Lower Sackville. (Robert Short/CBC)

The report is expected in time for the municipality’s budget deliberations in January or February.

Downtown Halifax has had a navigator program for nine years. North-end Halifax and Dartmouth are investigating the idea of sharing an outreach person.

Rod Rowlands, the director of Beacon House, a food bank that has been operating for 35 years, said he is optimistic the coalition can make a difference in Lower Sackville.

“We may not be able to solve the problem individually,” he said. “But as a group we can turn it around and get people back on track.”

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