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For the longest time, the Ally Centre of Cape Breton had a few boards missing from the building's back step that created a cavity under the stairs.
Executive director Christine Porter was hesitant to board it back up because she knew people were using it as shelter. But it became worrisome.
“There was some drug use happening under there and I was afraid that someone would overdose and not be seen, or (someone) would light a fire to keep warm and … stuff like that.”
So Porter had it boarded back up.
“That was kind of a hard decision to make when you know that people are using it for a very basic need, and that’s a roof over their heads.”
In her 21 years working at the centre, she’s never seen homelessness as bad as it is today. She said the population in Cape Breton in particular is very hard to house, because their lives are chaotic and many struggle with substance use or mental health problems.
She said the tiny homes she sees popping up in other cities would be “perfect” for this area. She imagines a row of small houses where people have their own spaces to live but can access primary health care or social services if the need presents.
“That seems to be what the trend is in other areas and we’ve just not gotten there yet.”
The U.S. has seen tiny home villages for the homeless appearing in recent years, in Seattle for example. And Calgary saw Canada’s first tiny home village appear in 2019, when the Homes for Heroes Foundation created a village of the small houses for homeless veterans.
The Ally Centre opened a comfort centre at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, where people can go in to warm up, have a light meal and some refreshments, use the internet and take a shower. The pandemic, however, has made it more difficult to help more people due to occupancy limits for indoor public places.
But the comfort centre still gives people a place to socialize and find others to talk to, something which many homeless people need. Many live very isolated lives, said Porter.
“It’s very needed, I think,” said Taylor McLellan, one of four or five workers at the centre. “With so many places closing and not letting people in, people need things like human interaction.”
The centre has stores of hats, boots, coats, gloves and mittens for the winter, and constantly need more.
“If we have 50 pairs (of gloves) at the start of the week, we might have zero pairs in three days,” said Porter. “They lose them a lot, I think that’s just the nature of human beings. So we can never have enough gloves.”
McLellan said canned soup is another thing they need plenty of in the winter. “We make soup every day, so that’s always great.”
And what do they need most?
“From the public, I always ask for understanding and empathy. You know, just picture if that was you, or someone you love. We could all find ourselves there.”
Jessica Smith is a reporter with the Cape Breton Post.