People living in tents in Halifax’s Grand Parade asked to relocate for safety reasons

By Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press

About a month after Halifax designated a downtown square as a tent site for people experiencing homelessness, the city advised those living there to move out because the area will become dangerous when snow-clearing operations begin.

But some people sleeping rough at Grand Parade say they want to stay put until they find a long-term place to live.

Leah Zinck, 24, has been living in a tent in the city square with her boyfriend since mid-September, and despite working full time, the couple has been without housing since August.

“There’s no reason that we can’t be paying rent somewhere. But it’s a matter of no one renting to us or it’s too pricey,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

She said they will continue searching for an affordable place to rent, but in the meantime, the Grand Parade is her preferred location to tent because it’s centrally located, close to bus routes and her work.

The Halifax Regional Municipality said eventual snow-clearing operations at Grand Parade makes tenting there dangerous, despite designating the spot as a tent encampment site on Oct. 17.

“If those sheltering in Grand Parade do not or cannot accept alternative indoor sheltering location options, the municipality will work with service providers to support people moving to one of the municipality’s current or new designated outdoor sheltering locations,” the city recently said in a statement. It highlighted the new 50-bed shelter across the bridge in Dartmouth, opened by the province Nov. 17, as an indoor shelter option.

Ryan Nearing, a spokesperson with the city, declined an interview Tuesday.

Zinck, who said she’s had negative experiences staying in a shelter, said, “I can’t see them trying to get us all out of here.”

There are currently about 15 tents in the square and about 20 people in them.

“If we have to move, if it’s going to cause chaos, we’ll go, but we don’t want to.”

The location of the Grand Parade encampment is ideal for Zinck because it’s close to places where she can do laundry, shower and charge her phone, routines that allow her to keep working. “That’s the prep I have to do to keep a good impression at work,” she said.

Mike Baker, 29, has been staying in a tent at Grand Parade for six weeks. He said he chose the spot because it’s close to a hospital and a Tim Hortons.

“Right now I just don’t want to be here anymore,” Baker said in an interview Tuesday. “The weather is cold and plus I have epilepsy, hydrocephalus, which is water around the brain, and dizzy spells.”

“But I chose this place because I didn’t want to be in a shelter,” he said, adding that at shelters, employees have regulated his medicine and his property has been stolen.

Zinck said she was mistreated at a local shelter over the summer, which is why she and her boyfriend decided to stay in a tent. They first set up in Victoria Park, another city encampment, but Zinck said the crowded site felt unsafe.

“It was miserable. I was losing my mind, so we decided to get an Airbnb,” she said. The couple spent about $1,600 for two weeks in the short-term rental while they searched for a permanent place to live.

“A lot of times when I get a good lead on a room or a place to live, things get all set up, and then just the next day something happens and it falls through, or they don’t answer,” she said.

After they were unable to find an affordable place to rent, the couple got a larger tent and set up in Grand Parade. Part of what’s made the spot livable, Zinck said, is support from community members, like Stephen Wilsack.

Wilsack was recently working on the set of a Christmas movie across the street from Grand Parade, and was “flabbergasted” to see the tent city downtown, he said.

“They’re just normal people that have nowhere else to go,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I was moved and just tried to figure out what I could do.”

Wilsack spent some time talking to those living in the tents to find out what they needed. Then, he and his colleague Matthew Grant collected and distributed sleeping mats, army surplus jackets, rain gear and tarps, and built a make-shift warming centre with a small charcoal stove at the site.

The two also make coffee at the site and deliver it to those living there.

Wilsack and Grant have spent the night in tents themselves at the Grand Parade on a few occasions when weather is extreme, including this past weekend’s rainstorm.

“We were here to provide safety and support in case anything happened,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2023.

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