Stefan Aulenbach and his family are living in a campground near Lunenburg, N.S., while he searches for a place to live — but time is running out. The campground shuts its doors in October, and he feels no closer to finding a home for his family.
"We had never planned to be living here 24/7," Aulenbach said. "It's beyond humbling. It sometimes can be a tough pill to swallow."
Aulenbach and his family are one of a growing number who are living in campgrounds, vehicles, and tents on Nova Scotia's South Shore. Housing workers in the area say this issue has been brewing for some time, but the pandemic pushed the situation to crisis levels.
Aulenbach is originally from the area and moved back this spring, but couldn't find an affordable place to live, so he moved into the two-bunk RV with his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter.
He's hoping to find a place in the area that will allow his family to stay together, but he's concerned about the lack of affordable options.
"I take it personally to make sure that my family's wellness is covered," he said. "I'd be the one to sleep in the pickup truck out in the driveway if we could find a place big enough for my wife and children and the baby.
"We'll just continue to hope and pray that something comes our way."
Data collected by the South Shore Open Doors Association shows as of this week, 72 households in the area are facing homelessness, including 48 children. Of that number, 35 are living in campgrounds, tents, shelters, vehicles, or couch surfing.
Matthew Thompson, a member of the South Shore Housing Action Coalition and the president of NEST Affordable Living Association, said though the South Shore Open Doors Association keeps track of how many people are asking for help, it is hard to pin down since many people don't come forward.
"A lot of people aren't reporting it because we have mental health issues that are popping up. People are stressed, they're heartbroken, people are ashamed of the fact they have no place to live anymore," Thomson said.
There are also people who don't recognize their situation as homelessness, or are concerned about stigma.
"I think it forces some injury on people's mental health. Insecurities and instability and self worth, self doubt," he said. "You get lost in the shuffle and you start to wonder, 'How strong can I be as the leader of the family? Is my family losing faith in me?' It's my biggest question."
Aulenbach said there are still moments of joy in his life thanks to his 18-month-old granddaughter, but he worries about not being able to provide adequate stability.
'A crisis level'
Thompson said the rise in rural homelessness is due to many factors. Rural areas are experiencing a decline in affordable housing and an "exponential rise " in rental costs. He said people are also being renovicted, or their units are being sold as a result of the real-estate boom.
"We had previous issues before the pandemic. We knew the housing supply was short, we were starting to see a rise in people having difficulties," Thompson said. "But since the last two years, it has exponentially increased to a crisis level here on the South Shore."
Thompson said a home that would have been rented out for $800 to $1,000 per month before the pandemic is now going for $2,500 to $3,500. He said it has created an "epidemic" within the working class.
He said he works with single people who are working three jobs and dual income families who are working four jobs and still can't afford the rental market in the area.
"These are people who are young, these are people with newborn babies, two, three weeks old, who are living in tents," Thompson said. "We have 70 and 80-year-old people who are living in their vehicles and suffering in this heat and experiencing medical conditions because they can't find a place … to rent that they can afford."
The Department of Community Services handles homelessness in the province, but when CBC News asked if the department has statistics on how many people are living in tents and campgrounds on the South Shore, a spokesperson would not say.
"In the South Shore area, we work with South Shore Open Doors Association, and they work to connect with anyone who has been identified as 'sleeping rough' in the area to offer support and connection to resources," spokesperson Christina Deveau said in a statement.
33 tents donated, looking for more
In the past six weeks, Thompson said his organization has given out 33 tents to people who are sleeping rough. This month, they're looking for donations of 20 more tents to meet the rising demand. They also brought 45 coolers to people living in tents to help them safely store food in the heat.
"It's heartbreaking," he said. "It's also maddening to me to know that we have politicians and governments that could step in and do something right now to make a huge change. But the red tape is there. They talk about wanting to do something, but when it comes down to action, there's nothing there."
Thompson's organization, NEST Affordable Living Association, became a non-profit in February of this year. They originally hoped to build new, but decided they don't have time to wait two or three years for a new build, so now their focus is to buy homes and renovate them into multiple units.
In the next year, NEST aims to have 30 new units available. Thompson said some local businesses and individuals have already stepped up to help, but his organization is always looking for donations to help create housing for the most vulnerable.
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