Garbage, safety among complaints to city about homeless encampments, documents show

When police swept into parks and green spaces in August to remove tents and shelters for homeless people, the municipality said the officers’ actions stemmed in part from the fact that there had been serious complaints about the encampments.

“This is about health and safety, and it’s gotten to the point now where there are a lot of issues … activities that have been happening around some of these encampments,” Mayor Mike Savage said in the aftermath of the encampment removals on Aug. 18, which saw protesters pepper-sprayed and 24 people arrested.

“Citizens have felt threatened and have been put in positions that they shouldn’t have to be.”

Through a freedom of information request, CBC News has received details about all contacts with 311 about homeless people, encampments, tents and crisis shelters between Aug. 1, 2020, and Aug. 20, 2021. 

The 228 calls detail a variety of concerns, including about sanitation, safety, noise, and residents’ feelings about the encampments. The calls do not include complaints made to police, which could be of a more serious nature. CBC News has also requested those complaints, but they have not yet been released.

Garbage and sanitation

Litter and sanitation were among the most frequent subjects of calls to 311.

Some callers complained about people urinating and defecating in parks and green spaces and leaving dog feces on the ground.

A large stuffed bear sits on a mattress at Peace and Friendship Park in Halifax on Aug. 18, 2021, as tent encampments were cleared by police and city staff. (CBC)

One caller said after previously noticing that someone had defecated on the sidewalk near Quinpool Road, and spotting human waste around a property there, “someone just in the last 24 hours used his mail as toilet paper and put it back in the mailbox.… People from encampment seem to be doing this type of thing from time to time,” according to notes written by the 311 call-taker.

A couple of callers suggested garbage bins be placed near encampments, and one person asked if washroom facilities could be provided near the former Halifax Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road “to accommodate homeless persons who are camping out on the site until they have access to a more stable housing situation.”

Safety and drug use

Safety was the topic of many calls to 311, several expressing general concern for kids and nearby daycares and schools.

A handful of people raised questions about drug use and the potential hazard of needles.

Police in riot gear held back protesters as the city removed tents and small shelters for homeless people outside the old Halifax library on Aug. 18, 2021. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Some callers were also concerned about the safety of the people living in tents and crisis shelters because of potential hazards associated with fire pits and other cooking devices.

Some callers frightened, angry 

Some of the calls were motivated by feelings that encampments were “unsightly,” “not very attractive” or “quite an eyesore.”

Residents reported feeling frightened, uncomfortable or intimidated by the encampments or their inhabitants, and said they felt uncomfortable using the parks.

At least one caller said he was “sick and tired of seeing tents, angry the city has not done anything yet.”

A person who’d been living in a tent in Halifax’s Horseshoe Island Park pets their dog early in the morning on Aug. 18, 2021, before the tent was removed. (Nicola Seguin/CBC)

A 311 call-taker heard from another man who “wants to know why these encampments are allowed since they are going against the bylaws. Does this give him the right to choose which bylaws he needs to live by?”

One caller was disturbed by someone living near Sea King Drive in Dartmouth who was doing laundry in a lake and “changing in the middle of the park in broad daylight,” while another was upset that a woman at Peace and Friendship Park in Halifax was changing her clothes outside: “Today her bra was see-through. Unhappy with this exposure.”

A few residents also complained about noise from encampments, including barking dogs.

Concern for homeless

However, not everyone was calling 311 to complain about the encampments.

One resident asked that street navigators — people who help the homeless get their needs met — check to see if a person living in a tent in Flinn Park needed any assistance.

A sign at Meagher Park in Halifax thanks neighbours for their ‘love, care, offerings, interest, compassion, participation, support, solidarity and welcome.’ (CBC)

The day before the evictions, on Aug. 17, someone called to say they were “concerned with all tenants being evicted, not happy since we do not have a plan in place … they feel other buildings should be purchased and made available to people in tents.”

Some were from people who were trying to help homeless people get their belongings back.

And, after the evictions, a couple of callers expressed concern about what had taken place. “Caller wanted to let us know how disgusted he feels living in the HRM given the events that happened yesterday.”

Complaints don’t reflect ‘silent majority’

Eric Jonsson, who co-ordinates the Navigator Street Outreach program, said he believes the complaints don’t reflect the “silent majority” of residents who care about homeless people.

“They just don’t call 311 to say, ‘Hey, I support this person living in the park.'”

Some of the complaints may simply reflect people’s discomfort with seeing homelessness.

“It’s unfortunate that people can’t see the bigger issue here,” he said. “If people had a place to live, then we wouldn’t have any issues at all.”

Jonsson said at last count in August, he knew of 81 homeless people in the area. 

He’d like to see more public and non-profit housing built to help alleviate homelessness, rather than relying on the private market. 

“It’s going to be expensive and it’s going to take a long time. But I think it’s the only way out of this.”

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