A lot of people in the CBRM have had a tough time dealing with inflation and finding a place to live in the last few years. The problem doesn't have answers right now, but there are bandages.
Section of a small tent community in Sydney - Christian Roach
There are people on the streets who are living that way because they simply can't afford how much rent costs. People who do have places to live are having a hard time trying to budget and choose between food or a roof under their heads.
There have been talks between municipal, provincial, and the federal governments to help people who are feeling the pinch and the struggle to afford to live, but there are people in the CBRM who can’t wait for legislation or the help from their neighbours to have the life they want.
The Ally Centre of Cape Breton has been spending years and countless hours helping people who need it most, and fighting the stigma that people who are not living comfortably face.
Ally Centre, corner of Prince and Bentinck streets in Sydney - Christian Roach
“The staff and all of us are extremely concerned about what is happening out there with our most vulnerable population. Daily we’re servicing people who are living rough. It is not unlikely that we will have workers come into the centre and see someone sleeping and curled up next to our wall,” said Christine Porter, the Director of the Ally Centre of Cape Breton.
Stephen Burrows, who moved to Nova Scotia in 2019 said that although he has been homeless in the past, with help, he’s found somewhere to live who offered him an opportunity.
“This guy came and gave me some soup when I was living on the street and his wife gave me twenty dollars and I didn’t see him until two days later, he comes back and says ‘help me pick up garbage,’ so we went around downtown and met the guy and the next thing I know, he makes a place for me in his bus, during the pandemic,” said Burrows.
“This man brought me into his bus and set up a heater and got me on welfare and I’ve been living there ever since,” he said.
Although stories like Burrows’ do happen, there is an alarming number of people who don’t have someone who will help them when they need the support.
Mayor Amanda MacDougall-Merrill has voiced concerns about the problems people are facing and said the CBRM is in a housing crisis, and it has happened quickly.
“The drastic nature of what has happened is staggering. I can’t believe how quickly it came about. The ferocious timing of it is what hits us all,” said MacDougall-Merrill.
The Ally Centre of Cape Breton has been helping people as much as they can by giving out hot meals, clothing, and in some cases, temporary shelters that aren’t always reliable.
“We’ve been handing out a lot of tents and a lot of sleeping bags and have a lot of people funding raising for us. We know that some people are going to be extremely uncomfortable and unsafe when they leave our doors, and it weighs down on all of us who work here. We’re worried,” said Porter.
Even though people are reaching out and helping those of us who are living rough, MacDougall-Merrill said there is more that the government can do to make life easier for everyone handling the higher cost of living.
“We’ve been attracting newcomers and bringing people back home. Our population is stabilizing for the first time in forty-years and with that growth it’s abundantly clear that we don’t have the infrastructure to support that rapid growth,” said MacDougall-Merrill.
“It’s really hard opening my inbox and seeing that it isn’t one demographic of the population that’s experiencing the stress due to the housing crisis. It’s everybody. It’s maybe seniors who want to move out of the big house and downsize to a smaller house, but there’s nothing available.”
The mayor went on to say that there has been help in the CBRM from the federal and provincial government, but there’s still more help needed.
“I have to hand it to the federal government. The rapid housing initiative is an incredible program,” she said.
That program focuses on immediate housing needs with the goal to commit all funds by March 31, 2024. The objective is to create new units of permanent affordable housing for people and populations who are vulnerable.
There are many organizations who help people eat and live and have shelter in the CBRM. Stephen Burrows knows personally how it feels to be helped.
“I remember when I was homeless in 2015, I was living in my car, and they have Loaves and Fishes in Cape Breton.”
Loaves and Fishes Community Kitchen serves over 100 people per day when their doors are open.
There are still people who go to bed hungry in the CBRM, whether it’s in a tent, outside, or stuffed into a single room.
There are options available, but the mayor said it simply.
“What needs to happen desperately is an investment in public housing and that falls to the province. There has not been investment in public housing here in the CBRM in 30 years,” she said.
“I do know that CBRM is one of the places that is due to receive some more funding and investments for public housing. I think that’s to the tune of around 22 units. It’s somewhere in that area, but we need more, and we need it fast,” said MacDougall-Merrill.
In the meantime, organizations like the Ally Centre of Cape Breton are helping people who are struggling to deal with the cold winter that’s coming, and providing what they can.
“During COVID, we sounded the alarm here, because the people we were serving who were living rough, they couldn’t go into a restaurant or go into a convenience store to use a washroom anymore, so we put portable toilets all over the CBRM,” said Porter.
She said that the people who were cleaning the toilets were worried about what they would find.
“We hired people with living experience to clean the toilets three times a day. Their biggest problem was on a number of occasions when they opened the door in the morning, there would be someone sleeping in there, in the dead of winter,” said Porter.
“People have to curl in there to sleep and some workers are afraid to open the door in the mornings because they weren’t sure if they were going to find someone dead in there.”
Although there are success stories like Stephen Burrows and others, there are still people who are facing another winter without shelter or when to know when they’ll get their next meal.
CRBM sign prohibiting camping on public property close to the Joan Harris Pavilion - The Third
There are solutions to the problem, but they will take time and some people living rough are going to be hungry and cold this winter in the CBRM.