People’s Park, the police, and the solution that isn’t

It’s not clear what will happen next at the homeless encampment at Meagher Park. What is clear is that whatever it is won’t solve the real issues.

I do not believe further civilian efforts will result in the park being vacated, as such I am asking your help to enforce the relevant provisions of the Municipal Parks By-law and the Protection of Property Act as set out in the notice.

Between now, and when you enforce, we will continue to work to ensure supports are provided to those sheltering in the park. We will also be available to coordinate with you so that, when you enforce, supports are available to those experiencing homelessness including supports such as transportation to a designated site or other accommodation, and connection to service providers. We will also be available to confirm, prior to enforcement, that adequate spaces are available either in a housing option or at a designated outdoor site.

Margaret MacDonald
Executive Director, Parks & Recreation
Letter to Police Chief Dan Kinsella
Halifax Regional Municipality
August 3, 2022

We implore the city to ask the police to stand down and give service providers and the community of support wrapped around the Meagher Park encampment seven days to implement this alternative.

We strongly believe that the people currently sheltering at the park need to be meaningfully involved in the selection of a new site and given viable alternatives for relocation which place their health, safety concerns, and dignity at the centre.”

Statement by 14 “homeless serving” organizations, including:
P.A.D.S Community Advocacy Network, Mutual Aid Halifax, Adsum for Women and Children, Coverdale Courtwork Society, North End Community Health Centre, Welcome Housing and Support Services, Out of the Cold Community Association, Stepping Stone Association, the Elizabeth Fry Society, United Way Halifax, YWCA Halifax, Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, Brunswick Street Mission and P.O.S.S.E.
August 6, 2022

Tents and emergency shelters are seen in August in the park at the corner of Dublin Street and Chebucto Road, which residents and activists there are now calling People’s Park. — Photo: Zane Woodford

By the time this is published, the place known as People’s Park will be gone.

Or it won’t be.

There isn’t much that is future certain as I write this on Sunday, August 7.

Except for one thing.

We’ll come back to that.

What we do know is how we got here — in both the short and long term

Almost exactly a year ago — on Wednesday, August 18 — Halifax police pepper-sprayed protesters, journalists, even a child, then donned body armour and riot gear to push back a crowd of 200 who had tried to stop the city from clearing tents and temporary wooden shelters at homeless encampments in local parks and green spaces.

It was messy, and it didn’t work.

Some of those who lost what little of everything they had in that day’s violence simply moved to another green space. Some settled in Nick Meagher Community Park — a postage stamp of municipal green space off Chebucto Road in Halifax’s west end named after one of Halifax’s longest-serving councillors. It soon became “the city’s most popular unsanctioned tent site,”

It’s been messy and it isn’t working either.

In early June, a Halifax staff report acknowledged that the municipality is in “a housing and homeless crisis.” There were just 200 shelter beds in the city and 616 people on an official list of those needing housing. It recommended four municipal parks where people experiencing homelessness would be allowed to tent.

Meagher Park — it’s pronounced Marr — wasn’t one on them. Too near schools, places of worship, too disruptive to people in the surrounding neighbourhood

… others living in the community have been raising concerns about safety. Staff said there have been reports of fighting, noises, threats to neighbours, slurs, and other disturbing behaviour from the park.

On July 5, the Halifax Regional Municipality issued a notice to close the park and gave its residents a 10-day transition period to clear out.

Some did. A few didn’t. A few new people even moved into the park. According to community workers, there are between three and nine people still camped out there.

While “homeless serving” groups continued to work with those individuals and advocated on their behalf, a few tattered, trouble-making remnants of the Freedom Convoy, looking for a new place to stage another last stand against, well, everything, suddenly began showing up:

Victoria Levack, a volunteer with PADS Community Advocacy Network, said protesters that are not associated with her group or the park residents began showing up in July, usually in the evenings, “to stir up stuff.”

“They asked if we wanted their help. We said no thank you and they came anyway,” Levack told CBC Radio’s Mainstreet. “And then we said not so nicely please go away. You’re not welcome here. We don’t support your values … and they won’t leave.”

Bruce Wilson, who lives on Chebucto Road, told the CBC’s Information Morning he’s recently noticed more activity around the park, “almost like a ramping up and preparing for things… Within the last several days, there’s been an increase in activity … [It] seems like a protection of the park, almost a fortifying of it. We see a pallet barricade up on one side on Dublin Street.”

On August 2, city council met in special session with a one-item agenda — what to do about the people in People’s Park.

Calling in the cops was on the table.

“The municipality is now at a point where they are considering exercising an option to call the HRP for assistance,” said Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella. “This decision will change the approach from non-enforcement-led to enforcement-led.”

It got messier still. At around 6pm on August 3, there was a small illegal fire at the park. Firefighters came. Some “park occupants” tried to prevent them from putting out the fire. The police were called. “The firefighters quickly extinguished the fire at approximately 6:15p.m. and departed the park without further incident,” according to the city.

Later that evening, the city’s Margaret MacDonald wrote to Police Chief Kinsella, asking that police be called in to clear out the squatters.

And now we are where we are.

The bigger picture is bigger — and even messier.

We aren’t just in a homelessness crisis. We’re in an economic crisis, which exacerbates the homeless crisis but doesn’t just affect those who can’t afford a place to live. There’s also a mental health crisis, and an addictions crisis too. Not to forget a need to, if not defund police, at least redirect funding to actually help those whose only real crime is that they are in crisis.

That broader stew of a crisis has its roots in decisions made decades ago

Beginning in the 1970s, governments began to “de-institutionalize” those with disabilities or suffering from long-term mental health problems. It sounded good — reintegrating people back into their communities — but it was never accompanied by the supports they needed.

In a 2003 paper, Exodus: 40 years of Deinstitutionalization and the Failed Promise of Community-Based Care, Ted Frankel stated the issue baldly:

The increasing number of Canadians with mental illness who are left uncared for and roaming the streets represents a huge failing that is not being seriously addressed in our society. Initially thought to be humane and progressive, “deinstitutionalization” has resulted in a very different reality for thousands of people with mental illness who have been released into the community. Many of those liberated from mental institutions and asylums have made an uneasy transition to life on the “outside,” sometimes with tragic consequences.

Twenty years later, not much has really changed.

Which brings us to the one thing we do know about whatever happens next at People’s Park. It will not solve the real problem

As Calista Hills, a volunteer at People’s Park, told the CBC:

For some folks, they want to stay because they have an option they think is better for them… Having police show up to clear out here just means people are moving to another spot and another spot and another spot. It’s just shifting the problem…”

As long as we keep shifting instead of facing up to the larger problems, nothing will really change.

UPDATE: On Friday, August 12, Halifax Regional Police issued as statement that all of the residents of the park had left and the park had been fenced off.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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