CBRM deciding to let Ottawa view affordable housing initiative candidates ‘an utter injustice’: non-profits

Patti McDonald has a message for Cape Breton Regional Municipality council and other community leaders in the region: try living outside for a night and see how homelessness feels.

Ian Nathanson, Cape Breton Post, March 10, 2023

“We are calling it The WAKEUP! Challenge,” said McDonald, executive director of Glace Bay’s Town House Citizens Service League. “We are going to challenge people to make a donation and sleep in a tent, rough or in a car, or make a bigger donation and not have to do that. We’re looking to see what the value of your comfortable bed is.”

The challenge, eyed for March 31, was issued in the wake of a Friday morning emergency council meeting at city hall, days after councillors and Mayor Amanda McDougall voted against accepting one of four proposals put forth to see if they might be eligible for $5 million in federal funding the CBRM received for an affordable housing project through a Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) stream.

“In chatting with people and the feedback we’ve gotten online, a lot of them are saying that they wish our decision-makers and community leaders could have the experience of sleeping in a tent before making these decisions,” said McDonald, whose organization initially submitted an application for potential funding, only to be turned down.

Sending applications back to Ottawa

Now McDonald and three other applicants who submitted proposals — Souls Harbour, Joneljim and a combined one from New Dawn Enterprises-Ally Centre of Cape Breton — have learned Friday that CBRM council has voted unanimously to send all applications back to the Canada Mortgage Housing Corp. in Ottawa and ask Canada’s national housing agency to help them vet which ones best meet criteria eligible for $5 million in affordable housing funding.

Town House Citizen League’s application called for a 15-bed rooming house located on Commercial Street in Glace Bay for short-term, meaning three to six months, as well as long-term residents, and with employment supports and services at the nearby Town House office.

McDonald said she didn’t know what to think of the Friday morning decision.

“I’m glad we have a chance to keep this $5 million,” she said. “But the whole process has been frustrating and unnecessarily confusing. There has been very little communication … in truth, none … between council and staff, and the groups who applied.”

Calling for resignations

New Dawn president and CEO Erika Shea wasn’t quite as diplomatic upon learning the proposals were being redirected to the CMHC.

“It was absolutely appalling and an utter injustice,” said a visibly shaken Shea, who later called for all of council and the mayor to resign. “It directly contravenes what thousands of residents have called for over the last five days.”

The joint proposal from New Dawn and the Ally Centre — which came together weeks after it was learned that the CBRM was awarded $5 million from a city stream portion of RHI funding — consisted of a 20-24-unit facility to go up in the Mira Road area that would house the CBRM’s most vulnerable in desperate need of housing and include on-site harm reduction needs.

“No one reached out with questions, no one reached out for clarification,” Shea said. “The first time this community is given authority to pick what is this community’s priority, they asked Ottawa to decide for them. That is not leadership.

“Leadership is making hard decisions, informing yourself in the time that you have, and getting down on your knees and thanking God that somebody thought to advocate on your behalf for $5 million for you in the middle of the worst housing crisis that you have had in your history.”

Protest files into City Hall

New Dawn and the Ally Centre were so upset with Tuesday afternoon’s council rejection that they held a protest outside of city hall before Friday morning’s meeting and brought several dozens of supporters carrying signs and chanting for council to not forget the homeless in the CBRM.

The supporters later filed into city hall, many of whom got a seat in the council chambers gallery, while others watched a livestream of the meeting in a nearby boardroom.

“We’re here in solidarity for folks who are living in tents and abandoned buildings in the hopes that this homeless situation (in our community) will be looked at seriously by the CBRM,” said Christine Porter, executive director of the Ally Centre.

After Friday’s vote, Porter echoed Shea’s dismay and her call for council to resign.

“They can’t pick a winner,” she said. “We have some good ideas throughout all of these what people feel about folks who access services at the Ally Centre. And this outcome is really disappointing. If that’s the way constituents feel about their communities, if they’re not able to pull together some simple paperwork … I mean, every day we deal with a lot greater issues than that as people who work directly with the population.”

Right thing to do 

Coun. Steve Parsons, who couldn’t attend Friday’s meeting due to a previous business meeting commitment, told the Cape Breton Post on Thursday he favoured the New Dawn-Ally Centre proposal “because it was the right thing to do.”

“(It was) only one of four that met the criteria in totality,” he said. “It was an expression of interest for council to go back and negotiate, fine-tune any of the concerns that council may or may not have to come to a final agreement of a contract.”

Should have had information 

District 1 Coun. Gordon MacDonald, one of six councillors who voted against funding for the New Dawn-Ally Centre proposal, said Friday he stands by his vote, that the RHI money arrived near the end of last year, without any explanation or added information, leaving council to make a quick decision on.

“It’s very disappointing that we had to come in and redo this process when we should have had all this information made available (days before) to be able to make these kinds of decisions. If somebody had said we could put all four proponents forward, we could have walked away in 20 minutes, rubber-stamped it, and now let’s do it.”

MacDonald directed the blame toward the province and the CMHC for not providing enough notice or guidance on the $5-million funding.

Allows more time

McDougall told reporters after the meeting the move to send the applications to the CMHC allows them more time to gather more information, rather than rush through a process and, thus, cause more upset.

“If we were talking about what was going to happen to the $5 million (on Wednesday), this money would have been going back (to the CMHC). At this point now, we have made inroads with CMHC to find a bit more flexibility in the eligibility and criteria of the program,” McDougall said.

“We are now able to put all four applications (in draft form) in that portal ensuring that there was going to be money here in the CBRM for affordable housing for those most vulnerable.”