Ally Centre’s impact in Downtown Sydney and Beyond

In discussions of the proposed CBRM Pallet Shelters and in ongoing discussions of the ways in which downtown Sydney is changing, misunderstandings about the work and clients of the Ally Centre of Cape Breton are common.

We write today to unpack some of this misunderstanding, and to disentangle homelessness and addictions in the CBRM – long-standing and growing community-wide challenges – from an organization who serves those who are homeless and/or addicted.


The Ally Centre grew out of a small network of HIV positive men who, in 1985, were seeking emotional support at time when their illness, and their lives, were highly stigmatized, and because of fear, misinformation, and discrimination, found themselves isolated, underserved, and rendered invisible at best, villains, at worst.

The AIDS Coalition of Cape Breton was incorporated in 1991 and since that time has fought for and deployed resources to keep vulnerable people safe, advocate for their dignity and inclusion, and apply evidence-based public health practices for the wellbeing of their clients and the broader community.

Today, the Ally Centre employs more than thirty people, and their services include safe needle exchange, anonymous HIV and Hepatitis C testing, healthcare services, housing support, a food and clothing bank, peer support for sex workers, and a community of staff and volunteers who see the dignity, worth, and possibility in each person who enters the Centre. This work is funded by both the provincial and federal government because it addresses a public service/public health need. As with many non-profits, the need for their services dwarfs the human and financial resources available to them.

The Ally Centre also provides a federally approved and provincially funded Overdose Prevention Site so that people can test their drugs before use and use while supervised by trained staff. If the life-saving benefits of this service are not evidence of the service’s value, perhaps the savings are. It is far cheaper to fund drug testing and supervised use than it is to engage the services of over-taxed paramedics and ER doctors and nurses to treat preventable overdoses on a daily basis.


The Ally Centre is not responsible for the homelessness and addictions crisis in the CBRM. They are not making it worse. People will go to where there are services for them AND to where there is the greatest concentration of (middle/upper income) people and wealth when their main means of obtaining income is panhandling.

For decades, the CBRM has had levels of poverty and unemployment that are higher than the provincial and national averages. Efforts over the years to raise alarm bells about this by dozens of organizations, including the Ally Centre, have been met with resistance or silence, and at times, the suggestion that pointing out the data on poverty and addictions in our communities was bad for business.

Today, poverty rates for the total population in the region are 18%. For those between the age of 0 and 5, they are 28%. In 2022, the vacancy rate in CBRM was 1.5%, the lowest in recent memory and compared to a vacancy rate of 8.2% in 2020 and 6.1% in 2021 (CMHC, Housing Market Information Portal). In August 2023, 1,240 households were on the waiting list for public housing, including 516 families (NS Provincial Housing Agency).

The Eastern Health Zone consistently has the highest annual mortality rate for opioid-related deaths in Nova Scotia (Data NS, Health and Wellness). The CBRM has needle use rates, and opioid recovery program enrollment 300-500% higher than mainland Nova Scotia (Data NS, Health and Wellness). In a 2014 paper prepared as part of advocacy for a Municipal Alcohol Policy (which was not passed), 53.1% aged 20-34 in Cape Breton reported heavy drinking in the past month compared to 38.5% in the province and 33.9% nationally.

If the Ally Centre did not exist, we would have the same level of homelessness and addiction but community members living with homelessness and addiction would not have clean needles; would not have the few places that do exist to safely dispose of used needles; would not have access to the equipment and information that reduces blood borne illnesses; would not have access to dedicated professional health staff and services; or the food bank; or the clothing bank; or the compassion and community that they find in the Ally Centre and that are increasingly difficult for this population to find elsewhere.


The work of supporting people who are homeless and/or addicted and/or working in the sex trade is not easy and it is not pretty. It is to be with people who are constantly on the brink. It can be dirty, it can be dangerous, it can be violent, it can be lonely, it can be frustrating, it can be heartbreaking. It can also be redeeming, uplifting, rewarding, meaningful, and life changing. It will, rest assured, vacillate between almost all of these states in the span of a day, everyday.

Visible homelessness and addictions are here to stay until we deal with their underlying causes: intergenerational poverty, intergenerational trauma, worsening mental health from childhood through to old age, an insufficient social safety net (income assistance, affordable housing, transportation, food, and education), insufficient mental health resources, racism, domestic violence, fear, and stigma.

We are programmed to want an easy answer. Move the Ally Centre. Move the homeless shelter. Put them on the outskirts. Stop “enabling” “them”. Our difficult and shared truth – our painful and long-term truth – is that there are no easy answers.

If we, as individuals, or as a community do not want to see homelessness or addictions, if we are afraid of it, don’t understand it, don’t know how to react to it, don’t know how to talk to our children about it, wish it would go away, want to move it somewhere else, that is on us, not on the Ally Centre. May we learn, in time, how to sit with our discomfort.

May we learn, in time, to focus our discomfort on fighting poverty, not poor people, addictions, not the addicted.


The Ally Centre wants what we all want – safe, well, stable, supported, untraumatized people and communities. Unlike many of us, though, they are charged with keeping people alive until the conditions change that allow this to be so.

Over the last decade, we have been in meetings with elected officials of all parties and all levels of government where staff from the Ally Centre have been the loudest voices in the room asking for:

• More alcohol and drug treatment programs and a greater range of in-person, long-term drug and alcohol treatment programs.

• The ability for people who are ready for recovery and treatment to access recovery and treatment programs as soon they reach out, immediately, not months in the future which can put their readiness at risk.

• More nonmarket, deeply subsidized, and supportive rental housing.

• Dedicated mental health clinicians at the Ally Centre to begin to unpack the lifetimes of trauma underlying the addictions of the vast majority of those with substance use disorder and help them chart their own course to sustained wellness and stability.

Progress has been made towards some of these needs, especially in the last two years.

In the months and years ahead, as this work continues, the Ally Centre will, as they always have, stand for the dignity, safety, survival and love right now of those who have few other tethers to “civil society” while advocating for the services, programs and approaches – like Rapid Housing, like transitional Pallet Shelters – that will actually help to end homelessness and addictions.

Alison Grittner, Assistant Professor, CBU
Dorothy Halliday, Executive Director, Community Cares Youth Outreach
Dr. Kristen Desjarlais-deKlerk, Associate Professor, CBU, L’nu, Political, and Social Studies
Dr. Catherine Leviten-Reid, Associate Professor, CBU, CED MBA
Louise Smith-MacDonald, Executive Director, Every Woman’s Centre
Patti MacDonald, Executive Director, Townhouse Glace Bay
Dr. Jodi McDavid, PhD, Executive Director, Transition House
Erika Shea, CEO/President, New Dawn Enterprises