Emmanuel Alviar, left, and Xan Beauchamp were among homeless people and advocates who camped out on the front lawn of Nanaimo city hall Monday to protest lack of housing and facilities for the city’s homeless population. (CHRIS BUSH/News Bulletin)

Tent city takes over front lawn of B.C. city hall

Homeless people and advocates protesting after Nanaimo loses funding for supportive housing

  • Mar. 13, 2018 11:45 a.m.

Councillors on Vancouver Island had a chance to meet some of the organizers of a tent city and all they had to do was walk out the front door.

A group of transient Nanaimo residents, along with advocates for the group, have pitched their tents on city hall grounds.

Matthew O’Donnell, a spokesman for the camp out, was joined by members of the Society of Living Illicit Drug users in addressing councillors at a City of Nanaimo committee of the whole meeting Monday at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre.

A camp-out formed Monday morning on city hall’s front lawn, populated by homeless people but also advocates.

“What you’re seeing on the front lawn of city hall is a very, very small percentage of a massive issue that’s happening here in Nanaimo,” O’Donnell said. “We have a homeless crisis here, we have an opioid crisis here and while they are two separate issues, they are very much connected.”

Kevin Donaghy, volunteer with SOLID, told councillors they dropped the ball on the supportive housing project that had been planned in Chase River.

“Housing is an integral first step in people being able to address other issues in their lives,” Dohaghy said.

O’Donnell said his group is asking for urgent action on issues facing people who are experiencing homelessness. He asked for movement on the supportive housing file, a permanent supervised consumption site and a drop-in centre where homeless people can go.

“How long do you intend, Matt, to have the awareness program on our front lawn?” asked Coun. Bill Bestwick; O’Donnell replied it would remain until his group sees action and movement on its requests.

Dale Lindsay, city director of community development, reminded councillors that they had already motioned for staff to look at other sites for supportive housing, and Coun. Gord Fuller added that “there is money available for the drop-in centre, which is what the homeless coalition is looking at … they’re working on that one.”

Fuller said it’s all going to take time and it’s not going to happen tomorrow.

“Throw more tents up on the city hall…” he added facetiously. “Let’s get a port-a-potty for them tomorrow. We can keep working on this and they can keep camping at city hall.”

Coun. Ian Thorpe said he’s not in favour of supplying conveniences to those camping at city hall and said he’s not comfortable feeling as though he’s “being held hostage to make quick decisions.”

He reiterated that council has provided direction to staff on a number of the issues raised such as supportive housing.

“They are looking for land, we’re pursuing that, we’re working on the needle problem which we all acknowledge, and I think staff is clear on what we want them to try and come up with,” Thorpe said.

The topic of needles on school grounds had been raised by the previous delegation and the two discussions overlapped. It led to councillors changing the subject away from the homeless camp and voting unanimously for city staff to meet with school district staff over shared safety concerns. No motion was made relating to the tent city.

Homeless people protest with city hall camp-out

People who make up part of Nanaimo’s homeless community gathered for a camp-out on the front lawn of city hall Monday to protest lack of shelter facilities.

The camp-out was staged in response to the recent loss of $7.25 million of provincial money to construct low-barrier housing in Chase River after the location was rejected by that neighbourhood and city council.

The protest was organized locally with help from SOLID, a peer-run advocacy and education organization that has been operating in Victoria since 2003 and is doing a three-month trial program in Nanaimo to employ drug users to hand out harm-reduction supplies and help with naloxone training.

Donaghy said homeless people in Nanaimo go through a daily revolving door of using emergency shelters overnight and then being forced to find places to warm up for a couple of hours before they are asked to move somewhere else. He said housing is an integral component of harm reduction.

“It’s and hour or two here and an hour or two there before they’re able to go back to the shelter and then they’re released from the shelter at seven in the morning and the cycle continues.”

About a dozen people were at city hall with tents by 8 a.m. on Monday, but more gathered throughout the morning, including James Reardon, a drug user who said he’s stayed clean for more than two days so he could take part in the protest.

“You know, you can’t complain about poverty if you’re not trying to solve it … I cleaned up a couple days ago before coming here so I could have a voice and be, like, respected and be part of this thing and be an example instead just like the blind leading the blind … if we could maybe make a difference that would be cool,” Reardon said.

Gina Watson, a SOLID volunteer who has been homeless for about 18 months, hopes a place can be set up where people can at least stay through the day and be warm.

“Like, peer-run. We would run it. Maybe with laundry services,” Watson said. “A place where we could hang out and be warm and be ourselves and not trouble on the street and garbage everywhere,” she said.

Coun. Jerry Hong said he didn’t think individuals protesting at city hall were homeless people.

“They are not homeless,” he said. “I don’t see a single homeless person. I am right here. I am looking right at them.”

Hong said when it came to the Chase River supportive housing project, city councillors should have taken the approach of purchasing land and holding public consultations first.

“We should have done what Parksville did. In anticipation, they got the land and communicated with the public about it and that is what we should have been doing first. We did it the other way and I think that was the problem,” he said. “I can’t blame the neighbourhood [Chase River] for thinking that we were forcing it them on with this because we didn’t do it the right way.”

Hong said he believes the city will eventually receive money from the province for a supportive housing project.

“The next step that I want to talk to council about is that we need to acquire some land,” he said.

-with files from Greg Sakaki, Chris Bush and Nicholas Pescod/The News Bulletin

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