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HCAP shifts location, philosophy

The familiar sign with the bold words “Halifax Coalition Against Poverty” is still attached above the street-level office front at 2420 Agricola St.

But now, red curtains are drawn across the large storm window. A peek through window on the door reveals a few boxes, a desk, a computer chair and a couple of picket signs, one with the words “We Unite 2 Protest & Fight 4 Human Rights.”

This is what is left of the old anti-poverty organization, also called HCAP.

The non-profit political and advocacy group has changed over the past year, says HCAP advocacy coordinator Susan LeFort. Several long-standing members have resigned.

Last summer, HCAP moved out of their office into a place above The Printer, right across the street. They had received an eviction notice from the landlord of the cold, mouldy building. For many members, that move was the last straw to a tiring re-organization process, LeFort says.

“That particular incident really made a lot of people stressed out and depressed,” she says. “(They said), ‘Fine, we just won’t have HCAP anymore because, you know what, I just can’t put up with this bullshit anymore.’”

Jill Ratcliffe, one of HCAP’s founding members, says she left partly because the group strayed from its initial focus.

The group formed in 2001 as the Halifax Anti-Poverty Initiative before changing to HCAP in 2004. It has held direct-action political campaigns on issues like social assistance and rent control. Over time, the group started providing advocacy services for landlord-tenant and social assistance disputes.

But Ratcliffe says this shift towards advocacy work detracted from the more straight-forward direct action approach.

“We realized that our action didn’t match our political philosophy,” she says, adding that she’s still supports HCAP. But it just isn’t “in line with anything I want to be doing politically.”

Ratcliffe says she also drifted from the group because she’s adopted other projects. Other members left for similar reasons.

Without anyone left to run the organization, LeFort planned to open an office for advocacy services. But she received between 35 and 40 e-mails and phone calls asking her to keep HCAP running. So she searched for a new location.

To get to LeFort’s office now, you have to climb 20 cement stairs and a walk to the end of a hallway past several offices. A sign with the letters “HCAP” stencilled on coloured paper is taped to the door.

LeFort took on administrative duties when the move happened. She’s been managing the office and financials, but says what she really enjoys is the advocacy work.

James, a former member who has had run-ins with the police and doesn’t want his last name used, says advocacy is important, but he would like to see a different angle.

“I could do advocacy work 24-7 until the day I die, but there’s always going to be more people who need better housing, more money in order to feed themselves, buy medicine, take care of themselves,” he says.

“Advocacy work just won’t get that. It’s a real band-aid solution to what we view or associate as economic or political problems.”

James was a member for a couple of years, but has not participated since last December. He says “underlying tensions” were present in the organization before the eviction notice.

Last winter, HCAP occupied the Department of Community Services during a protest to maintain government funding for Pendleton Place, an emergency shelter. Both James and LeFort say this put the organization at bad terms with the department. In turn, this made advocacy work more difficult.

“People saw a pretty big disconnect between doing service work … and being a political organization,” James says.

LeFort says she understands the tension between advocacy and activism.

“I think that if you’re choosing to do advocacy and then … you are also turning around and doing the office occupation of the Department of Community Services, there’s a conflict there,” she says.

She hopes the group can put more focus on solving individual issues as they arise.

“I’ve always believed political action comes from the human condition and not from political ideologies,” she says. “When you’re talking about grassroots, you have to deal with it individually.”

First, she needs to find a meeting place for the first HCAP general meeting at the end of this month.

In the past, you could walk by the old location and see anywhere from five to 30 people inside, bundled up in winter coats, hats and mittens, with visible breath. They might have been making picket signs or debating the details of a protest. The 2420 Agricola St. office hosted regular meetings, but was only heated enough to keep the pipes running.

The new location is heated, but too small for a meeting place. The room is almost as empty as the old location is now. Two computers, each perched on its own desk, sit on either side of the room. A legless table rests on milk cartons next to a black filing cabinet.

The website has not changed over the past year. But neither has the phone number, so people can still contact the organization.

Six people have taken an interest in volunteering for administrative work says LeFort. She also hopes to secure more funding and work with the Department of Community Services to make amends.

“It’s a kind of re-group, so we can re-establish ourselves as an organization and move forward.”

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