When Eric Jonsson meets someone sleeping rough, he first asks them what they need. He says many of them ask for things like dry socks or cigarettes, but what they really need is a place to live.
As part of his work as program lead with the Navigator Street Outreach Program, Jonsson conducts a semi-annual count of people sleeping outside in Halifax Regional Municipality.
The November count, released this week, showed 85 people sleeping outside. It is nearly the double the number from August 2021.
But Jonsson said he and his colleagues couldn't speak to everyone who they know lives rough, and the true number is more than 110.
"If you gave people quality accommodations and the supports that they needed, then I think almost every single person that we talked to would have moved in that day if we could have given them the keys instead of the survey," Jonsson said.
According to the survey, 57 people are sleeping in tents, seven in ATM vestibules, six in Tyvek huts, five in cars, four in a sleeping bag with no tent, and two on a park bench. Others are on blankets, near buildings, hospital heating vents, the mall, and in a shed.
Most of the people surveyed were male, with an average age of 42. A disproportionate number identified as Indigenous or African Nova Scotian.
Jonsson said this survey differs from others like the point-in-time count and the by-name list, which include people sleeping in shelters, transition houses, hotel rooms funded by the province and similar situations. Those surveys showed 586 and 712 people experiencing homelessness, respectively.
"Those people are just as vulnerable and just as open to harm as people living outside, but we don't see those people," he said. "All these different ways we have of measuring homelessness are imperfect and they don't capture the true extent of it all."
Jonsson said aside from the chronically homeless people he has been seeing for years, there is a new category of people in Nova Scotia who have jobs and can't find a place to live in the middle of a housing crisis.
"A few years ago, when I was doing this kind of work, it was mostly people who faced a lot of different barriers to getting housed," he said. "They might have addiction issues and might have no income coming in.
"I think the biggest increase is ... folks that are just living outside because they've got nowhere to go."
Jonsson said the steady rise in homelessness is just one symptom of a crisis impacting all walks of life.
It is also reflected in skyrocketing demand at soup kitchens.
"We're seeing what everyone else is, and that is a significant increase," said Ron Dunn, chief development officer for Souls Harbour Rescue Mission. "I would call it even a national emergency if I had that power."
Dunn said the mission is serving 400 hot meals a day at its locations in Halifax, Truro and Bridgewater. He said more people used to come in at the end of the month, but now there is a steady stream every day.
"These needs keep rising up, it's everywhere," he said. "I don't want [people] to think, 'Oh it's an inner city problem.' It's really not."
Dunn said the organization is seeing more homelessness, but also many more people with precarious housing who need this kind of support for the first time.
"Just people that have said to us, 'Look, if you can help me out with some of these kind of basic needs then I can afford groceries or I can pay my rent'."
In November, 800 people came to the Souls Harbour Free Mart for things like toiletries and clothing. Dunn said that number has more than doubled since this time last year when 300 people used the service.
More housing needed
Jonsson and Dunn both commended the work of community-based organizations and non-profits groups but said more needs to be done and more support from all levels of government is needed.
Jonsson pointed to the recent purchase of the old Travelodge Suites in Dartmouth by the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia. The building, now called the Overlook, is being converted into supportive housing units for up to 65 people experiencing homelessness.
"I'd just like to see more housing getting built for people who are living on the edge, people who are living in the margins that we don't see," he said. "But once you house those people, there's gonna be way more people that just kind of show up because it's such a fluid and ever-changing population."
"So we just need way more and constantly new units to be built so that we can give people a home and give people a place off the streets."
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