A tiny home destined for St. Anthony’s Church in Dartmouth, N.S., is hoisted onto a truck. Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth

Francis Campbell: Halifax diocese writes its own Nativity narrative

  • December 17, 2021

It’s coming on Christmas and the Halifax-Yarmouth archdiocese is writing its own inspirational story of Bethlehem.

The archdiocese has moved quickly to pursue a goal of providing 20 single-occupancy crisis shelters for the homeless in Halifax Regional Municipality by Christmas Eve.

“Our first emergency shelter has been built,” the archdiocese announced on its website early last week. 

The shelter is located at St. Anthony’s Church in Dartmouth and the website announcement said it will be occupied shortly.

Back to the Bethlehem narrative.

The Nativity story of Joseph and Mary travelling from the town of Nazareth to Bethlehem was prompted by a decree from the emperor that all people should be registered and counted.

There’s also an egregious census of sorts updated weekly by a Nova Scotia group. As of Dec. 7, the number of people in Halifax Regional Municipality who were experiencing chronic homelessness was a whopping 343, according to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia. 

The definition of chronic homelessness is an individual, often with disabling conditions, who has experienced a total of at least six months — 180 days — of homelessness over the past year or who has recurrent homeless experiences over the past three years with a cumulative duration of at least 18 months — 546 days.

Chronic homelessness includes: time spent staying in unsheltered private or public locations without consent or contract or in places not intended for permanent habitation; staying in emergency or overnight shelters for homeless or those affected by family violence; or staying temporarily with others without guarantee of continued residency or immediate prospects for permanent or short-term accommodations.

No room at the inn, no room anywhere for many of the chronic homeless.

The archdiocese recognized a dire need and stepped in.

A note on the archdiocesan website by week’s end said Nova Scotia is experiencing a housing crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenge of finding safe, affordable housing.

“Many people across the province are facing the prospect of spending the winter living in a tent,” the note continued. 

“Corporal acts of mercy, including sheltering those who go without, are central to our Christian faith and teachings. These are not optional projects — we are called to love ‘not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’ ” 

The archdiocese then invited congregants, readers, whoever would listen to help fund and build the crisis shelters. 

“These are not long-term solutions, but they are a way to immediately provide support and dignity to some of our brothers and sisters who are without shelter,” the website note proclaimed. 

The archdiocese asked for donations to defray the expected total cost of $230,000. Each eight-by-eight-foot unit costs $11,500 and features steel siding, a built-in bed, a heater, a single light fixture, a smoke detector and USB ports.

This Bethlehem story unfolding in the Nova Scotia municipality that is home to almost half of the province’s nearly one million people even had a Herod, although that characterization seems a bit strong and ought to be amended to read even had a grinch, a safety grinch.

The archdiocese was ready by October to put its crisis shelter plan into action, to build 20 smaller, waterproof, insulated shelters. The municipality required the archdiocese to change its plan so that the structures would meet the provincial building code. Originally budgeting $1,500 for each shelter, the archdiocese saw the price tag jump to $11,500 per shelter.

But the archdiocese could not be dissuaded. 

With the construction and design assistance of Well Engineered Inc., and between eight and 10 people working on each shelter, the archdiocese landed its first shelter at St. Anthony’s. Two more were to be finished for arrival at the same site by the middle of last week and occupancy permits were to follow. By week’s end, an additional two shelters were to be headed for St. Michael’s in Spryfield with the goal of having 20 shelters on eight church properties ready for occupancy by Christmas.

“This is a major undertaking that will require generosity of time, talent and treasure from our entire community,” the archdiocesan note said. “But this is who we are called to be as Catholics — this is how we are called to live the Gospel in our present time and place.”

The archdiocesan Bethlehem story has no Christ child and no shining star to shepherd travellers, but a Christmas miracle can sometimes simply be a warm place to sleep.

(Campbell is a reporter with the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)

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