A gingerbread homeless shelter for the holidays

For most people, ginger bread houses evoke warm and fuzzy feelings of the comfort of home during the holidays, but an intriguing holiday campaign from Halifax creative agency Shortstop is turning that idea upside down as a way to promote discussion around homelessness between Halifax parents and their children.

“We’re living in a time people are living outside, sleeping outside in snow because the government’s not really stepping up to provide a fast, adequate solution for them,” said Campbell McClintock, spokesperson for Halifax Mutual Aid, an anonymous entity whose website describes it as “a group of people committed to taking action against houselessness in Halifax.”

The campaign is built around kits that enable people to construct a gingerbread replica of the small, watertight and insulated shelters Halifax Mutual Aid has been erecting in the city’s public spaces for the past year. The organization claims it has provided shelter to more than 50 individuals since its inception.

McClintock called it a non-hierarchical group comprised of people from various professional backgrounds, from carpenters to communications professionals and people working on the frontlines of the homelessness crisis. How many people? “Anywhere between 20 and 100, let’s say that,” he said.

The group doesn’t seek municipal permission to put up these shelters and, as we’ve seen play out in other Canadian municipalities like Toronto, they have become a flashpoint for clashes between residents and local law enforcement.

The people behind Halifax Mutual Aid chose to remain anonymous in part because of how the city of Toronto pursued legal action against Khaleel Seivwright, a carpenter who built shelters for the homeless before being forced to stop by legal action earlier this year. “It’s every city’s intention to obstruct any community-led effort to support vulnerable people,” said McClintock.

Shortstop approached Halifax Mutual Aid with the idea for the campaign. Founders Sam Archibald and Peter Woodward saw it as a way to prove their creative chops, and maybe get their fledgling agency on the radar of prospective clients. At the same time, they wanted to help an organization without any budget for advertising, earn some media coverage and perhaps even spark discussion around homelessness and its societal impact.

Halifax Mutual Aid was receptive to the idea, but insisted on strict secrecy at all times. Video conferences with the organization were strictly cameras-off affairs, for example, and one the agency’s primary points of contact was known only to Woodward and Archibald as “Chuckles.”

“They’re remaining anonymous even with us,” said Woodward. “It’s kinda shrouded in mystery.”

The creative idea is a $15 kit that contains the ingredients and instructions for recipients to create a gingerbread replica of one of Halifax Mutual Aid’s crisis shelters. Each kit comes with a mini booklet that is a children’s story called Everyone Needs a Home.

“Children see the tents and shelters around the city and they have questions,” said McClintock in a release. “We often hear people saying that they don’t know how to talk with their children about the housing crisis. Our goal is to help facilitate those conversations as families read the story and build gingerbread homes together.”

Woodward said that the organization has already received approximately 90 pre-orders for the kits (with just over $10 from every sale going directly to Halifax Mutual Aid), a number that could increase with 400 wild posters directing people to buy the kit at HolidayShelters.com being put up around Halifax today (Dec. 10).

Shortstop had originally hoped to use traditional out-of-home elements like TSAs, bus kings, etc. but their entreaties to various out-of-home companies were rebuffed because Halifax Mutual Aid does not have a named leadership team that can address any issues or complaints.

“Advertising standards have proven quite difficult because we’re not allowed to run traditional billboards, bus sides and all the original out-of-home we thought we were going to be doing,” said Woodward. “That’s where we ran into a problem.”

The company worked with Postering Ottawa to erect the wild postings. “They don’t have the same issues with putting up posters as the billboard or bus [advertising] companies might have,” said Woodward. Mutual Aid Halifax is also promoting the initiative to its nearly 3,200 Twitter followers.

Chris Powell