Councillor, Halifax Mutual Aid point fingers after alleged assault in Dartmouth park

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The councillor for Dartmouth Centre is casting blame on a group that builds unsanctioned crisis shelters for unhoused people after a local senior was hospitalized by an alleged assault this week — but the group in question says there’s more to the story.

Coun. Sam Austin said the 65-year-old Dartmouth, N.S., resident suffered broken bones after he was assaulted Monday morning by a man staying at a crisis shelter built over the weekend by Halifax Mutual Aid in a park in downtown Dartmouth.

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The alleged assault happened after the man knocked on the door of the shelter, “some words were exchanged, and it went very badly from there,” Austin said.

“It’s a double tragedy. (The shelter occupant) faces criminal charges now that are quite serious, and the resident has some broken bones,” said Austin. “It’s not an outcome that’s great for either party.”

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Coun. Sam Austin says there are dangers when it comes to putting up shelters without supports in place. Amber Fryday/Global News

In a post to his website, Austin said Halifax Mutual Aid “actively created” the “dangerous situation” at the park by placing the structure there “with no discussion with anyone else and with no supporting services.”

The councillor said in an interview Tuesday that there is a need for crisis shelters, but more thought needs to go into where they are placed.

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He said he’d be open to designating public land where unhoused people can set up shelters, and said the Halifax-Yarmouth Archdiocese has a program with similar shelters that are up to code. However, that program is scheduled to end at the end of May.

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“There is a need for the type of housing they’re providing, just not in the way they’re doing it,” he said.

“There are people that are going to be sheltering in our public spaces. Where are those spaces, what are the rules around them and what are the services and supports we can provide?”

Housing crisis

Halifax Mutual Aid builds small structures around the municipality to shelter unhoused people. The group was formed in the winter of 2020 in response to rising homelessness in the region.

The group, which is made up of anonymous volunteers, has long been at odds with the city, which has maintained their shelters are not up to code and do not provide the wraparound services the occupants need.

Halifax Mutual Aid, however, has said it is responding to a crisis that has evolved after decades of inaction from all levels of government.

The issue culminated in August 2021 when dozens of Halifax Regional Police officers and city crews descended on parks around the municipality to dismantle the shelters and remove the unhoused people staying in them.

Read more: Documents show Halifax’s ‘conscious decision’ to quietly carry out encampment evictions

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At the time the municipality said everyone who was evicted was offered alternative shelter, but later admitted that was not the case.

Since then, the city has taken some steps in addressing the homelessness crisis, like building modular units in Halifax and Dartmouth. However, Austin noted the units in Dartmouth, which can house 24 people, are already full, while the units on the Halifax side of the harbour have yet to open to occupants.

The latest numbers from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia indicate there are still nearly 550 people experiencing homelessness in the municipality, more than 400 of whom are chronically homeless.

Read more: How advocacy forced governments to confront Nova Scotia’s housing crisis

Austin said Halifax Mutual Aid appears to be trying to send a “political message” that more housing is needed, which he said is a “fair message.”

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He also said the group has “elevated the issue” of homelessness and acknowledged that they helped bring about “some actions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

“Where it goes awry is just on the tactics of it, because there’s harms that can result from just dropping these encampment sites wherever,” he said. “These are not issue-free places, and what makes them function so much better is when they have supports in place.”

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Volunteers say they were threatened

In a release Monday, Halifax Regional Police said officers responded to a report of an assault in progress in the area of Starr Park on Prince Albert Road in Dartmouth.

“A 65-year-old man who lives in the area and a 31-year-old man who was not known to him became involved in an argument after the 65-year-old man approached a structure that had been illegally built in the park this weekend,” the release said.

“The 31-year-old man assaulted and threatened the victim who was transported to hospital for what are believed to be non-life-threatening injuries.”

The release said police arrested the suspect at the scene and charged him with assault causing bodily harm and threats to cause death.

However, a spokesperson for Halifax Mutual Aid said Monday night that the police report left out a “significant detail.”

In an email, they said the 65-year-old man had previously used a circular power saw to cut a hole in the shelter.

A spokesperson with Halifax Mutual Aid says the man who was assaulted had cut a hole in the shelter with a circular saw. Submitted by Halifax Mutual Aid

The group did not make anyone available for an interview on Tuesday, but said in an additional statement that afternoon that they were “saddened” by the incident Monday.

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However, they alleged the individual who was hospitalized was someone who had threatened volunteers and shelter occupants during and after the assembly of the shelter, and had used a tool to cut a hole in the crisis shelter on Sunday.

“We present these details not because the violence was justified, but because Halifax City Council is once again pushing false and misleading narratives that put some of the most vulnerable members of our community at greater risk of violence,” the statement said.

Read more: Nova Scotia’s housing crisis: How the emergency has reached a boiling point

It went on to say that the housing crisis has caused growing tensions in the community and accused Coun. Austin of “demagoguing.”

“The solution to this crisis will not come from further marginalization of those without housing,” the statement said. “The solution is safe, dignified housing.”

Global News attempted to speak with a shelter occupant on Tuesday but nobody answered the door.

As of Tuesday, the hole was not visible on the small wooden shelter but a section at the back appeared to have been recently repaired.

A section at the back of the shelter in Starr Park appears to have been repaired. Alex Cooke/Global News

Adam Pelley, who lives in the area, first noticed the shelter over the weekend. He said he doesn’t have a problem with it in his neighbourhood.

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“I think anybody would acknowledge it’s an imperfect solution to a difficult situation, but it’s a better situation than the person would have been in before,” he said.

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Pelley said midway through Sunday, he noticed “significant damage” to the back of the shelter and informed Halifax Mutual Aid over Twitter.

“I felt pretty awful about it,” he said.

“As somebody who lives nearby to this, I felt worse knowing that there was somebody who may live in this neighbourhood that would do something like that to the most vulnerable people in our population, than having the shelter across the street.”

Adam Pelley, who lives in the area, said he noticed ‘significant damage’ to the back of the shelter on Sunday. Amber Fryday/Global News

In an email, Halifax Regional Police spokesperson Cst. John MacLeod said police did not have any information about the alleged use of the saw, or of the allegations of threats against the shelter’s occupants or Halifax Mutual Aid volunteers.

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“If anyone has any additional information in relation to this incident they should contact police,” he said.

Meanwhile, Austin said he had “no idea” about those allegations, though he said the assault is “not an appropriate response if that indeed happened.”

“But it illustrates the volatility of the situation,” he said.

Austin said he would be open to working with Halifax Mutual Aid in the future to discuss constructive solutions to homelessness.

“They have been able to pull volunteers, they have been able to raise funds. I mean, that’s money that could go to those church shelters, for example, which is a totally built-to-code, sanctioned thing by the municipality,” he said.

“There is a constructive path available. I hope that they’ll come around to taking it.”

— with files from Global News’ Amber Fryday

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