From the sidewalk on a busy road in downtown Dartmouth, N.S., it looks like a small shack has been dropped into a thicket of trees.
Weather-resistant house wrap covers the plywood walls of the 6-by-8-by-8 foot structure. There’s a steel roof, a window and a door that locks. But a closer look reveals this is no storage shed.
This is Paul’s place.
“Four walls and a floor and a roof, and it’s warm in there,” said Paul, 49, who didn’t want to share his last name. “It’s secure, it’s home.”
There’s no kitchen, bathroom, electricity, heat or plumbing, but it’s dry and sturdy. There’s just enough space to sleep, with two small rattan trunks and a tote box nearby serving as a pantry, seating and clothes storage. The shelter is also outfitted with a smoke and carbon monoxide detector.
After three years of homelessness, this temporary lodging is the closest thing to a home Paul’s known since he was evicted from a rooming house after losing his job as a roofer and struggling to pay rent. He knows what it’s like to sleep under an overpass or live in a men’s shelter and witness someone die.
Up until recently, Paul spent 10 months braving the elements amid these trees; first under a large plastic bag that once contained a king-size mattress, and then in a tent.
“Even though I was wrapped in plastic and it was watertight, it would just always snap all night. You can’t sleep,” said Paul. “It’s all you hear: Ba bang! Ba bang! You don’t know what kind of banging it is.”
Still, Paul said he “hemmed and hawed” for 15 minutes about whether to accept the offer of his own shelter. His street navigator — a city-funded outreach worker — made the pitch, but Paul was afraid the small structure would attract police and force him on the move again.
He thought about a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., that he had read in a newspaper that day: “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” He decided he was ready to make the leap.
Within hours of saying yes last Saturday, the roof over Paul’s head was built by Halifax Mutual Aid, a group of anonymous volunteers on a mission to build watertight, insulated shelters for anyone sleeping rough because “otherwise residents of Halifax will die,” it states on its webpage.
It’s estimated that nearly 500 people are currently homeless in the Halifax area.
The lifeline is also political. Tired and frustrated by an inadequate response to homelessness by provincial and municipal governments, the volunteers are trying to prove the housing crisis is “no crisis at all” if action is taken.
Paul is the first to receive one of the group’s builds, which it calls crisis shelters. Halifax Mutual Aid is soliciting donations to build more emergency structures, and in an email to CBC News, the group said its next temporary lodging is spoken for.
“This is not a happy, feel-good project for us. While we are driven to help, this situation is heartbreaking for us,” said one volunteer.
The sight of Paul and his friends hanging out — his “street family” — has alarmed some neighbours on a gentrified street with million-dollar views of the water. One resident complained to CBC News about the potential impact on property values and expressed suspicion over Paul’s friends.
During the installation of the shelter, someone called police. Officers showed up and left — it wasn’t a crime.
Dartmouth Centre councillor Sam Austin also received about a half dozen calls and a few emails with complaints and demands that the shelter, which is on municipal land, be demolished.
But that won’t be happening.
Under a new empathetic, human rights approach to homelessness adopted by the city last month, the shelter will be staying put. Gone is the tactic of enforcing the no-camping rule on municipal property and pushing people away who have nowhere to go.
“To go in with a very rough and heavy response of, ‘Well, we’re just going to tear down your shelter and move you around’… that is taking a bad solution and applying an even worse remedy to it,” said Austin.
City councillors are taking action on homelessness, unanimously approving three housing projects recently under the federal Rapid Housing Initiative, but it’s still many months before people can move in.
Austin said the province has the power to do more now.
“If we went and rented a hotel and threw open the doors, we don’t have any social workers. We don’t have any programming for any of that,” he said.
While the structure is “not a pretty thing,” Austin noted that people who are marginalized are often targeted and deserve to be treated humanely. It wasn’t long ago that a homeless man, Harley Lawrence, was set on fire in a Nova Scotia bus shelter, he recalled.
Not every neighbour is upset by the appearance of the crisis shelter.
Don Dine said Paul and his friends haven’t bothered him whenever he’s walked by.
He wishes the government was taking stronger action on homelessness during the pandemic, such as housing people in empty buildings or even in tent cities with access to water and bathroom facilities. Permitting someone who is homeless to live in one of the crisis shelters is an act of compassion, Dine said.
“This time requires a little bit of charity on everybody’s part, right?” he said.
Paul said he was relieved to learn from CBC News that his shelter can stay. Now he can think about making improvements such as building a bunk bed to create space, and jokes about building a porch.
After just a few days, Paul said he’s putting on weight and is sleeping through the night — even without a mattress. He sleeps on a heap of blankets and sleeping bags. Still, he is calm.
“I can wash without being afraid that somebody is going to jump me in my tent,” he said.
Paul’s street navigator is assisting him to receive a monthly $535 social assistance cheque for the first time in years. He recently bought a little stove, a and warm boots.
His goal is to work as a labourer and save enough money to move into a real home — with a kitchen. He loves to cook.
But first, he’s paying it forward.
Paul has been walking around the Halifax area, searching for other people who could use one of Halifax Mutual Aid’s crisis shelters. It has six more to be deployed over the next few weeks.
Helping someone to receive critical, albeit temporary, shelter is Paul’s way of saying thanks to the “incredible” volunteers who gave him that gift. They also gave him a care package and a plaque inscribed with the words “Home Sweet Home.”
Paul asked one of the volunteers to put it up above his door.
“He says, ‘No.’ He handed me the nail and the hammer and made me put it up,” said Paul.
He paused to reflect on the moment.
“Isn’t that cool?”