I was only 11 in 1946 when I first visited the City Home—a residence for Halifax’s “poor and indigent.” I didn’t like going there, but my mother asked me to accompany my grandmother when she visited my Uncle Francis who was, in my juvenile opinion, an “inmate” there.
I would walk to my grandmother’s home on a street just off of Spring Garden Road. It was a rather rundown rooming house where she had rented a small room heated by a wood stove. My grandmother, who had been born in L’Ardoise, Cape Breton had never learned to read or write because from birth she had been almost completely deaf. She had married my grandfather Augustus Lawrence, when she was in her teens.
Because they were very poor, they had moved to Halifax, probably during the 1920s, in the hope of earning a decent income. My grandfather began working as a carpenter on the waterfront, but he had slowly begun experiencing serious walking problems and one day, the police brought him home to the house where the family lived on Lower Water Street.
They told my grandmother he was drunk. We now knowthat he was suffering from a fatal neurological condition. Soon, he could no longer walk and because the family was destitute he was placed in the City Home where he would die in 1925 when he was 40 years old. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Sadly, my grandmother also fell ill, so all of their children except their youngest son were sent to St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Halifax. Francis, who was probably less than two years old, went to with relatives who lived in a nearby rural community. We later learned that he had been physically and emotionally abused, and years later, he also ended up in the City Home.
And, so every Sunday, my grandmother visited Francis at the City Home. For me, it was like visiting a very large and forbodding fortress. We would arrive around 10:45 a.m. entering a large hallway that looked stately but reeked of industrial cleaner.
Like other visitors, we walked directly into a large Catholic chapel that was exquisitely peaceful. On the wall hung a solemn crucifix, while candles flickered soothingly on the altar.
Residents would filter in to meet with their friends and family. We could watch them come down to us by looking up at windows that framed a hallway above the chapel.
There were men, women, and children of all ages. Some had mental illness or mobility issues, others were suffering from nothing more than age. Francis would quickly lumber over to us. He was always dressed in mismatched and ill-fitting clothes. He usually needed a haircut. He barely spoke to us but almost immediately eagerly began eating the apples and cookies my grandmother had brought for him.
As a young girl, I found the environment distressing and was always keen to leave. Week after week, I sought excuses to avoid returning to the dreadful City Home.
Soon I was an adult, training to be a nurse at the Halifax Infirmary. In my last year there, I again had to visit visit the City Home.
This time it happened when the Sisters of Charity who then ran the Infirmary arranged a tour. Classmates who had already visited warned us it would be unpleasant, and and they didn’t exaggerate.
Wearing our bright white uniforms and nursing caps, we must have created a striking contrast in the dingy wards we soon visited. Some people were kept in comfortless wire cages. They looked hopeless. In one corner, a man sat naked on the floor, exposing himself as we passed. One woman was dressed in a handmade outfit comprise entirely of underwear. She acted as if she was wearing her Sunday best.
Another resident told us hopefull that “everyone who walks through the door of this ward will receive thousands of dollars.”
It was like travelling back to a childhood memory, and discovering it was worse than I recalled.
The Halifax City Home closed in 1972. While services are still woefully inadequate, the people who would have ended up there have much better options today. Today the IWK children’s hospital stands on the site, which I find reassuring, as it reflects a dramatic change in how our society treats its most vulnerable, all within my lifetime.