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Ric Young, seen at an encampment at downtown Halifax’s Grand Parade, on Oct. 19, 2023. says the facility isn’t a good option for him or his fellow unhoused neighbours.Kelly Clark/The Canadian Press

People living in a downtown Halifax encampment say they feel safer sleeping in tents rather than in a newly opened $3-million shelter that one unhoused resident says is “like a jail.”

Ric Young, who has been staying in a tent at a homeless encampment near city hall for about six months, toured the new 50-bed shelter at the Halifax Forum and says the facility isn’t a good option for him or his fellow unhoused neighbours.

“We are not convicts, but we’re being treated like convicts,” Young said in an interview Wednesday, citing a lack of privacy and security.

On Monday the province and the Halifax Regional Municipality opened a temporary homeless shelter with room for 35 men and 15 women that will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the end of August. The province and city say the new shelter can increase capacity based on community need and extreme weather events, and that they plan to add another 20 beds in the coming weeks.

Nova Scotia agreed to pay $3 million to cover operational costs and Halifax provided the space and a shower trailer.

The new facility brings the total number of shelter spaces to 355 in the Halifax region, with 493 shelter beds across the province. More than 1,100 people from the Halifax area had self-identified as being actively homeless as of Jan. 23.

Young said the shelter, which is in an auditorium-like space with cots and yellow curtains between beds, doesn’t provide the same level of security, comfort or support afforded to people tenting downtown at a public square called Grand Parade, across from city hall.

He said his tent offers privacy, a place to lock up his belongings, and stability because the encampment is in the heart of the city and helps him stay connected to resources, such as food from nearby churches. Often, he said, people drop off donations at the Grand Parade site.

The Forum shelter, meanwhile, is 3.3 kilometres northwest of the Grand Parade, and between 20 to 30 minutes away by bus.

Steve Wilsack, a volunteer at the downtown encampment, said the 25 to 30 people living in tents at the Grand Parade were offered a spot at the shelter – and only one person accepted.

“What it comes down to is the offer for a shelter needs to be better than what they have,” Wilsack said in an interview Wednesday.

But the Forum shelter isn’t being shunned by everyone: the Department of Community Service said 32 people stayed there overnight Tuesday, when temperatures dropped to -9 C in Halifax.

Wilsack said shelters are a valuable tool for emergency situations and for those who are homeless and without access to necessities such as a tent and sleeping bag.

“But many individuals feel that it’s almost like going to jail. There’s no sense of privacy, there’s no sense of security, a lot of restrictions in terms of rules and regulations,” he said.

Christina Deveau, a spokesperson for the Department of Community Services, said in an e-mail that “shelters aren’t glamorous. But they are warm. They provide people with meals and a hot shower and keep people from being exposed to the elements.”

“There is more support for people experiencing homelessness now than ever before. That’s why it is frustrating to know that there is the capacity for people to move inside but see people refuse to do so,” she said.

Deveau added that work is ongoing to increase privacy at the shelter “where possible.”

Young said the sense of community keeps many people staying in tent encampments. “It’s a family here. We take care of each other,” he said.

He said the province should have used the $3 million it spent on a shelter to increase benefits such as income assistance and rent subsidies to help homeless people afford housing.

“Nova Scotia’s income assistance will pay $972 (a month) towards rent. If they gave us an extra $200 or $300, then we could maybe afford an apartment or a room,” he said.

Until he’s able to find something better than the ice-fishing tent and tarp setup he has at the encampment, Young said he will not move into a shelter.

“It’s not just about comfort, it’s not just about heat, it’s not even just about safety. It’s about humanity. It’s about being treated as a human and not being treated like a child. Not having to be told when you can go for a cigarette, not being told when you have to go to bed.”

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