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Homelessness Hits Home

January 11, 2010

Homelessness Hits Home

Volunteers provide shelter where government drops ball

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Volunteers prepare for a night at Out-of-the-Cold. "The elephant in the room is that there has been no government funding of this project," says shelter organizer Fiona Traynor. Photo: Baran Shirazi

HALIFAX—The opening of Out-of-the-Cold Shelter in Halifax this winter was described as both a celebration and a sad reality by shelter organizers.

"We are pleased to be providing this service but it's not really a happy occasion," said Carol Charlebois, Executive Director of Metro Non-Profit Housing Association. "We would much prefer it if we were opening longterm, supportive, affordable housing," rather than a "last resort" winter shelter.

The shelter, a community-based response to homelessness in Halifax, has provoked mixed feelings for another reason: Out-of-the-Cold is run entirely by volunteers.

"The response from the wider community has been amazing," says Fiona Traynor, a member of the organizing committee for the shelter and community legal worker at Dalhousie Legal Aid. "But the elephant in the room is that there has been no government funding of this project."

The crowd in Halifax at the opening for Out-of-the-Cold. Poverty advocates describe the shelter as both a celebration and a tragedy. Photo: Capp Larsen

The 15-bed shelter was open for two months last winter and is open for its first full season this year. Staffed entirely by volunteers, it is open every night until April from 9pm until 8am. The shelter space has been donated by St Matthew's United Church. Everything from clean blankets to hot meals are provided by volunteers—some in their teens, some in their 70s.

"I've learned things I didn't know I didn't know," says volunteer Shannon Aulenback. Aulenback says he's had his eyes opened to the realities that people face without a home. "Whenever I work, I do the overnight shift," he says. "Some of the people like to stay up late and chat. They've always got interesting stories, although not always happy stories."

On the day of the interview he was working a full day, volunteering all night at the shelter and returning to work the next morning at 8:30am.

But according to Aulenback, the lack of sleep is not the hardest part of volunteering. The hardest part is waking people up in the morning and telling them they have to return to the streets. "We can't provide the service the whole day," he says. "You don't want to send people out in the cold at 8am. You don't want to wake someone from a warm bed. That's the tough part."

It's a cycle that frustrates Megan Leslie, New Democrat Critic for Housing and Homelessness and Halifax Member of Parliament. "It's hard to find work when you don't have a home or a phone. Never mind not being rested and having a place to relax and just be a person," she says. "The solution to homelessness is housing."

"I am a huge supporter of the shelter. I think it's wonderful and addresses a huge need in Halifax," says Leslie. "It's incredible what [volunteers] are doing. It's also completely tragic. This is not housing. This is not acceptable."

Leslie is a strong advocate of a National Housing Strategy, as put forward by bill C-304. Bill C-304 calls on Canada to work with all levels of government, Aboriginal communities, civil society and private sector stakeholders to establish a national strategy to ensure access to adequate, affordable housing.

The NDP bill is supported by the Bloc and Liberals and cleared the committee stage in December. At the time of the interview, Leslie was hoping the bill would be voted on in February. However, since the federal Conservatives have suspended parliament until March the vote will have to wait.

In the meantime, Halifax is not the only place community members are mobilizing to respond to what the Federation of Canadian Municipalities calls a national disaster.

Seven churches in the Annapolis Valley have formed teams of volunteers to staff a winter shelter one night per week. Anyone needing a place to sleep for the night must register with the RCMP who will then take them to the church that is open on that night.

John Andrew, co-director of Open Arms, which coordinates the emergency shelter says the situation is not ideal but the group had difficulty finding a permanent space for the shelter. He explains that there's lots of fear about homelessness, which is also part of the rationale behind the RCMP escort. The fear is unfortunate and unfounded, says Andrew who has been working with the homeless population in his community of Kentville for over six years. He is seeing the need for housing increasing.

This winter, Lunenburg County has launched a similar program with several churches working together to provide winter shelter for those who need it, once again staffed entirely by volunteers.

The trend is an alarming one for for some. Huge amounts of community resources are going into what many consider a band-aid solution.

With more government funding for affordable housing, argues Leslie, the payoff would be huge. "If you look at building housing, there's three possible wins," she says. "First, combating poverty. Affordable, secure shelter helps combat poverty. [Second,] if you build it sustainably, you could also lower the carbon footprint. Thirdly, it employs people to build it. This is the perfect time to build housing. You can hire the architects and builders. It creates job opportunities."

Environmental and economic arguments aside, Leslie believes that being homeless is an affront to a person's dignity. "I believe housing is a rights issue," she says.

Traynor echoed Leslie's sentiment at the opening of Out-of-the-Cold. "Housing is a human rights issue. It's not a tragedy. It's a human rights issue," she says.

"We don't have a national housing strategy. We have a shelter run by volunteers. It's good, but it's not a solution."

Hillary Lindsay is an editor at the Dominion. This article was originally published by the Halifax Media Co-op.

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