HALIFAX — Many Nova Scotians wait years for subsidized housing, a shortcoming the province raised Tuesday as a defence against allegations it has consistently failed to find suitable homes for people with disabilities.
Neil MacDonald, a manager at Housing Nova Scotia, told a human rights inquiry that 3,400 families and seniors are on public housing wait lists, and the average wait approaches three years for some housing programs.
"Depending on what your needs are, you may need to wait a long time to get into a particular community," he said.
The civil servant testified as the province defends itself against a complaint that it has discriminated against people with intellectual disabilities by keeping them in hospital-like, institutional settings.
The government argues that low-income housing programs also have limits and waiting lists, and called MacDonald to the stand as part of their case.
He said while applicants do eventually get into homes in their community, they may not be offered their first choice of building or unit.
Still, he noted that in recent years the province has been making a concerted effort to reduce the wait list for public housing, and to add to its stock of about 27,000 public housing units and 2,700 buildings.
Two patients, Beth MacLean and Joseph Delaney, have alleged the Department of Community Services violated the Human Rights Act by forcing them to remain at the Emerald Hall psychiatric ward in Halifax for over a decade, even though they had been medically discharged.
The human rights complaint, laid in 2014, argued they should have been provided housing in a "small options" home after psychiatrists medically discharged them.
Small-options homes are small housing units, usually with three or four residents, where day-to-day support is provided to people with intellectual disabilities to allow them to live in their community.
The province's lawyers argue that while the province supports the principle of community-based care, it's not a human right as defined in the legislation.
The complainants' lawyer, Vince Calderhead, argues Nova Scotians on income assistance have superior access to social services and housing of their choice than people with intellectual disabilities receiving assistance under the same legislation.
As of February, there were 1,500 people with disabilities either awaiting some form of support from the Department of Community Services, or awaiting a transfer to a different housing option or location, according to the department.
Calderhead said in an interview that the government's effort to link waiting list for public housing to the waiting lists for people with disabilities isn't relevant, as the two programs are fundamentally different.
"The list for public housing isn't based solely on need. Middle-income people can live there and stay there. Even though the government is pushing a comparison with that, it's really not a relevant comparison," the lawyer said.
People who are on welfare enjoy rights to housing and income support that are essentially being denied to some people with disabilities, Calderhead has argued.
In the afternoon, the hearing heard from Patricia Murray, who was the care co-ordinator who oversaw Delaney's file for a number of years.
She testified that Delaney was moved out of the psychiatric ward for a time and lived in small options home, but in 2009 his health declined and he returned periodically to the hospital.
Murray said Delaney's mental health declined as his medications changed and he had bowel pain, and that he shouted frequently and hit some staff, she said.
Nursing staff were provided to the small options home to treat Delaney, but Murray testified that in general he had seemed more comfortable at the hospital.
Different homes have been tried for Delaney, including the Quest rehabilitation centre, but he has again returned to Emerald Hall when his distress returned.
She said that she understood that Delaney is "doing very well" at the hospital, "and is a happier guy than he was previously."
Murray will face cross examination on Wednesday.
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Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press