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Shelter storm

A protest last week rallied for affordable housing now.

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At 9am on a recent Friday morning, a motley band of 50 social activists and low income people-many of no-fixed-address pushed shopping carts down Spring Garden Road and shouted out their need for more affordable housing now.

“Are shopping carts our national housing strategy?” asked a hand-lettered sign sticking up from one of the carts. The pockets of the gray-haired man pushing it were bulging with apples; David Snair had squirreled them away during the free breakfast in the park just moments before. Snair, who talks and prays aloud, has been thrown out of several shelters because he’s difficult to handle when he’s not on medication. Drugs cost money—something he rarely has.

Snair and others with a range of physical and mental disabilities limped past policemen equipped with riot gear standing guard on the centre line of the city’s main shopping street. The Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, led by Anna Hunter, a Dalhousie graduate and self-proclaimed anarchist, was determined to make a point.

Federal and provincial housing ministers were meeting at White Point Lodge, two hours away near Liverpool. (Ironically, government officials couldn’t find 200 rooms in Halifax to sleep the entire entourage). The street demonstration was supposed to underline how long it’s taking politicians to act on promises to provide housing to those who need it the most.

“They have repeatedly failed us,” said Hunter. “The politicians’ only national housing strategy is shopping carts. That’s where more and more people are living or what they’re using to make a living. It’s not appropriate.”

Paul O’Hara is a social worker at the North End Community Clinic in Halifax. He participated in an HRM survey last year that estimates as many as 30,000 people in Metro need some kind of immediate or affordable housing.

“There’s no end to it,” says O’Hara. “When you consider the number of people couch surfing who are invisible, there are hundreds of people who are at risk. There needs to be security before they can get on with their lives. When there is social housing available, we’ve seen they do get themselves in order.”

O’Hara travelled to White Point where Toronto’s Michael Shapcott, the president of the National Housing and Homeless Network, urged government leaders to “stop spinning and start building.” The NHHN wants the government to immediately allocate $2 billion a year to housing.

Federal housing minister Joe Fontana and NS community services minister David Morse co-chaired the conference. Morse entered the two days of federal-provincial meetings musing about whether the feds were truly prepared to “go beyond ad hoc programs and ribbon-cuttings to move toward a long-term, sustainable housing strategy.”

Since 2002, Ottawa and Nova Scotia have been 50-50 partners in an affordable housing program. The goal was to create 1,500 new units by 2008. So far, 450 places have opened and the $56-million program is now estimated to deliver no more than 900 units. Ottawa provides the upfront money for the construction/renovation.

The provinces may choose to use their 50 percent to build more housing or provide rent subsidies to tenants. Unfortunately, most low-income Nova Scotians don’t earn enough money to pay rent that’s “affordable” under the federal government’s definition: the cost of shelter must not exceed 30 percent of the household’s income.

In Nova Scotia (where minimum wage is $6.80 an hour and social assistance tops out at $1350 a month for a single parent with two teenagers) that means the province uses its cost-share to lower rent for the poor. In NS, the rent subsidy works out to $150 a month for 10 years.

The waiting lists for public housing are long. The affordable housing program expires in 2008. What happens after that depends on the “vision” contained in the draft national housing strategy the federal minister shared with the provinces.

Morse, who went into the meetings fearing the worst, says the document reassured him that Ottawa would get back into social housing “in a big way for the long haul.” Provinces have until October 31 to submit their suggestions—Fontana will then take the country’s first national policy on housing to the Martin Cabinet for its approval.

None of this impresses Anna Hunter. She’s a show-me-the-money girl. Less talk and more action is what she wants.

“What do 450 apartments mean when in HRM, there are 30,000 people living at risk?” asks Hunter. “We need immediate shelter for a lot of people. While some groups have been working with government, that’s still not happening. I’d rather be part of a “hardcore fringe,” if that’s what it takes to get more housing built.”

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