Nova Scotia

Search and rescue crews play unique role in Halifax homelessness crisis

Downtown Halifax isn’t where you would typically expect to find search and rescue crews, but they’ve become a familiar sight to people living in the city’s tent encampments.

During extreme weather events, Halifax Regional Municipality calls on the orange-clad volunteers to do wellness checks on people experiencing homelessness, and drive them to shelters, if they want to go.

Paul Service was part of the Halifax Search and Rescue team out this weekend, during what has become the biggest snowstorm to hit the province in two decades.

“We try to make them aware of what’s coming and let them know the reality of it,” he said.

“We know that not always folks want to leave, they want to stay with their possessions and we get that, so at that point in time we try to support the best we can.”

Search and rescue team does wellness checks at Halifax homeless encampments

Halifax ground search and rescue crews are doing wellness checks and offering to drive people to shelters during this weekend’s storm, but many people are choosing to wait out the storm in their tents. The CBC’s Taryn Grant reports.

That support can come in the form of a hot drink, a new blanket, or an assurance that they’ll be back again later.

When search and rescue volunteers were out on Saturday afternoon, a couple people at the tent encampment in Lower Sackville took the opportunity to leave for a shelter, but no one at Grand Parade or Victoria Park wanted to go, including Kathryn Jones Cleroux. 

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She’s been living in a tent since last summer.

“You know, I’m way more comfortable in this tent than I was last year in an apartment I couldn’t afford to heat,” she said from the vestibule of her snow-covered tent in the middle of Victoria Park.

A woman wearing a red toque, knit scarf and black wool jacket looks straight into the camera with a snowy park behind her.
Kathryn Jones Cleroux sits outside her tent in Victoria Park in Halifax on Saturday. She has been homeless since last summer. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Jones Cleroux said she doesn’t think she could follow all the rules shelter operators set.

“I’m loud, and I like having a space of my own. And I’ve never lived by myself. I’ve had four kids. This is my first place that I’ve lived by myself.”

Unique in Canada

Service said Halifax Search and Rescue is the only search and rescue team in Canada that does these kinds of wellness checks, but the idea is getting attention elsewhere.

“We certainly are getting engagement or interest from other teams that are aware of what we’re doing and … seeing how they can support their own local communities.”

Service said a conversation with Halifax Regional Municipality started in 2019 when there were no tent encampments in public parks as there are now. Homeless people were more commonly living “off the beaten track,” Service said, so city staff reached out to search and rescue because of their expertise with wilderness searches.

A man in a bright orange search and rescue jacket speaks to a homeless man outside his tent in a snowy city park.
A Halifax search and rescue volunteer speaks to a resident of the tent encampment at Victoria Park in Halifax on Saturday. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Now they’re spending more time in urban spaces, but Service said the crews’ expertise still applies, especially in extreme weather, when being outside comes with serious risks.

“Certainly our folks from a wilderness perspective are all trained in hypothermia awareness and cold injury. So they’re always looking for that.”

In addition to visiting the homeless encampments, HRM also sometimes calls on Halifax Search and Rescue to check on people on the voluntary vulnerable persons registry

Service said the frequency of wellness checks is up 50 per cent over last year, in part because of the weather, partly because the program is becoming “more mature.”

Even though she said no to the ride they offered, Jones Cleroux said she’s glad Service and his colleagues stopped by.

“We’re so lucky to have the search and rescue that comes by to check on us. We really are.”

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