Wed. Jul 17th, 2024

Last week, we brought you a series called ‘On the Brink,’ which profiles people who are struggling with the rising cost of living in Nova Scotia. Global News reporter Megan King recently sat down with Halifax Mayor Mike Savage to talk about the housing challenges faced by a growing city. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve been mayor of Halifax for over a decade now, and during that time we’ve seen a lot of growth and a lot of change. That growth comes with some challenges when it comes to housing and affordability. Can you tell me what those changes look like for you?

A: The changes we’ve seen in Halifax are the same that we’ve seen across the country, across the continent and really around the world. We would have thought when we went through COVID that everything would kind of slow down, and instead things accelerated — especially in a city that’s grown as fast as Halifax.

We’ve had a lot of immigration over the last six years, and over the last couple of years we’ve seen the interprovincial migration come here as well. It is good, it’s better than not growing, but there are problems that come with those challenges, and homelessness is certainly the one that weighs on my mind. From the discussions I’ve had with other mayors, it’s what’s on their minds too.

So, we have to figure these things out. Everyone has to put their ego — and, to some extent, their jurisdictional responsibilities — to the side, and say, “What is the problem here, and how do we get people housed?” That’s the focus that we have.

Q: To speak to that, there’s been some headbutting between the provincial government and the municipality. How do we work together for the betterment of the most vulnerable?

A: I’m more encouraged than I’ve been in a long time with the relationship with the province. I think we want the same thing. We want growth. We want housing. And we don’t want people homeless on the street.

Yes, it’s a provincial responsibility, but the city has stepped up in a very significant way. But in the last little while, the province has taken some major steps, so I’m more encouraged today than I was a week ago, and I’m much more encouraged than I was a month ago.

The minister of community services and I have regular discussions. John Lohr, the minister of housing, and I have discussions. And our officials get along really well.

People who are sitting at home, housed or unhoused, don’t care about what order of government is responsible, or what the party might be of that government. What they care about is progress, and people are feeling the pinch, so we all have to sort of put our shoulder to the wheel.

Q: How does it feel when you know there are people sleeping rough every day?

A: Really, how it impacts me is irrelevant. It impacts people who have no place to live. Any human being, I think, would look at a situation of somebody living in a tent, in Canada, and say, “First of all, it gets cold in Canada. Secondly, Canada’s a pretty wealthy country. We have the resources to deal with this.”

It’s a solvable issue. Is it complex? Yeah. Is it simple? No. I’ve spoken to representatives of the federal and provincial governments and the bureaucracies on this issue, and I’m convinced that there are solutions, and some of them, I think, could be relatively immediate because we don’t need to have people sleeping outside.

For example, we have in Grand Parade a number of people who are there. Do we want them in Grand Parade? No. For their own sake, we want them inside. I’m not interested in just making it more comfortable outside, I want people inside where it’s warm. But if there’s no place to go, then these red (winterized) tents are a better solution.

So we’re going to work to provide power to them in the meantime, and we have some folks out there who will work with them and others to see if we can find permanent solutions so that everybody has a chance.

Red ice fishing enclosures are pictured at a tent encampment in downtown Halifax, Monday, Dec. 4, 2023.


If you’re homeless, it’s got to be an awful feeling. As winter’s closing in, we’re getting close to the longest, darkest day of the year — think about what it might be like to be in a tent at three o’clock in the afternoon, knowing that it’s getting dark, it’s getting cold, and how do you survive the night?

And if you do survive the night, then you’re thinking the next day: where do I get breakfast? Where do I get lunch? You’re always thinking about how to get through the day, and we need to get to a place where everybody has a tomorrow.

Q: Over the past decade — even five years ago — we did not see this kind of homelessness in the streets. But did we not see this coming, when you think about the amount of growth we’ve had?

A: We haven’t had a national housing strategy from the early 1990s until 2018. We haven’t had significant provincial investment in Nova Scotia. Under three different political parties, we haven’t seen the crisis level of funding that we needed.

And we’re no different. Every city you could name is having problems. I had a mayor last year tell me that one of the worst things he ever saw was somebody sleeping in a dumpster because there was heat there. We don’t need to do that. There should be solutions.

Did we see it coming? We planned for growth. In 2016, we set a target: we wanted a population of 550,000 by 2031, and we were tracking very well on that. We had the centre plan in the city here. We were asking the province to allow us to do things like density bonusing and affordable housing. But what nobody saw was the great influx of people during COVID.

But we’re all in the same boat. I talk to other mayors all the time, I talked to a number of international mayors last week, and it’s a big issue for sure.

Let’s put the jurisdiction to the side. Let’s forget about the political philosophies. I think that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Tim Houston, Mayor Mike Savage all want the same thing. And I think we’re all prepared to do something to get there, and I’m seeing progress that makes me feel more positive.

Q: Is there anything that came out of the last year that you want to see continued or grown upon?

A: What we need is permanent, sustainable, accessible, dignified housing for all people. I hear sometimes from people, “Well, they want to sleep outside.” I don’t think anyone wants to sleep outside in Canada in the winter.

Let’s just start with the premise that housing is a human right, and we’re a wealthy enough country that we can provide that if we choose to. We’re prepared to do our part to make sure that happens.

And work with community — look at the United Way, and the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, and the North End Community Health Centre, 902 Man Up, service providers.

There’s all kinds of people who are willing to help. If we can get the right resources at the right time, then I think we can give people a tomorrow.

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