Federal housing advocate urges caution as provinces turn to hotels for the unhoused

While provinces consider utilizing hotels to offer temporary shelter to individuals residing in homeless encampments, Canada's housing advocate emphasizes the importance of governments honoring the needs and rights of the unhoused, who may prefer not to undergo relocation.

Federal Housing Advocate Marie-Josée Houle leaves a news conference in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. As provinces look to hotels to provide temporary housing to people living in homeless encampments, Houle says governments must take their cues from the unhoused people they’re trying to serve and look for permanent solutions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

As provinces look to hotels to provide temporary shelter to people living in homeless encampments, Canada’s housing advocate says governments must respect the needs and rights of the unhoused, who may not want to be moved.

Marie-Josée Houle made the remarks in Newfoundland and Labrador last month, where staff at a Comfort Hotel near the airport in St. John’s will soon transform the building into a transitional housing facility under a lease with the province. The arrangement is similar to one struck by the Nova Scotia government that turned a DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in the Halifax region last year into a transitional housing complex.

Halifax and St. John’s are among many cities across the country where unprecedented numbers of homeless people are living in tent encampments, a trend Houle says is a human rights crisis. And though hotels may provide temporary respite from the outdoors, they will not solve the problem, she said in St. John’s.

“Living in a hotel is not a solution to homelessness,” Houle said. “The big thing is did (governments) properly, meaningfully engage with people in encampments? Is this what they choose? That’s really what it boils down to.”

The Newfoundland and Labrador government announced its three-year, $20.7-million lease agreement for the Comfort Hotel last month, amid mounting public pressure to help people living in tents in a central St. John’s park. Some encampment residents have said they felt safer in tents than in the province’s shelter system, which includes homes owned by private landlords looking to make a profit.

The new facility, which does not yet have a name, will also offer mental health and addictions services, and include staff to help find residents a more permanent place to live. People are expected to begin moving in next month.

“We’re still going to feed them,” hotel owner Judy Sparkes-Giannou said in a recent interview. “We’re still going to clean the rooms, we’re still going to do all the things that we would typically do in a hotel environment, other than we’re probably not picking them up at the airport.”

Michael Kabalen, executive director of the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, worries governments offering transitional housing via hotels are pulling focus from permanent solutions. A hotel room can provide relief, especially if it comes with health care and community supports, but there must be permanent housing for people to go to when they leave, he said in a recent interview.

“If someone’s in a hotel, and it is labelled as transitional, they’re still going to be living in crisis while they live there. The only way to resolve that crisis is housing,” Kabalen said. “These are all very expensive solutions. Housing is the least expensive solution for most of these folks.”

His group helps run The Overlook, a supportive housing project in Dartmouth, N.S., which used to be a Travelodge hotel. They bought it with government funding, and renovated the hotel rooms to become self-contained apartments with bedrooms and kitchens. The complex, which Kabalen said opened last year, offers permanent apartments, not temporary shelters.

On Tuesday, Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services said it was in discussions about extending the lease on the former DoubleTree hotel in Dartmouth, which was turned into a transitional housing facility and on-site health clinic called The Bridge. The lease expires next month.

Spokesperson Christina Deveau said in an email that 32 people staying at The Bridge have found long-term housing since it opened.

Meanwhile, the Halifax Regional Municipality handed out eviction notices February 7 to residents of five of its designated homeless encampments, saying there were “better options” available than outdoor tents.

In British Columbia, the Lookout Housing and Health Society runs a Canada’s Best Value Inn in Langley, B.C., as a 46-bed supportive transitional housing facility, which began as an emergency residence during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Megan Kriger, a director with the group, said former hotels can work to house people in a crisis, but they often need renovations and they must be properly staffed to provide the necessary support.

“Hotels were not designed to be lived in and often those who require emergency or temporary housing are struggling with barriers which require even more durable living space requirements,” she said in an email.

Houle said that whether or not provinces set up hotels as temporary housing for people in tents, governments must take their cues from the people they’re trying to serve and look for permanent solutions.

“Homeless encampments are a physical manifestation of exactly how broken our housing and homelessness system is across the country,” she said. “The immediate thing is for governments to acknowledge that there is a housing crisis that they need to address. And the solution is housing, adequate housing, which is different for every single person.”

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