The roads are slick with black ice and noses turn red from the biting cold—Nanaimo faces a chillier winter this year and the homeless population needs more support than ever.
Over the last decade, those living on the streets have struggled as inflation steadily increases and people become more desperate to make a living.
Drugs are more addictive with the use of opioids and fentanyl, and it is taking more Naloxone to bring people out of overdoses.
As a result, more people are dying.
Communities need to start looking at long-term plans for individuals suffering from trauma and other mental health issues, such as temporary housing units.
In a press release on November 30, 2022, the City of Nanaimo announced funding for two warming centres with nonprofit organizations, The Nanaimo 7-10 Club Society and the Rise Bridge Project.
With a $100k fund, the 7-10 Club hopes to open this week at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, 100 Chapel St. Nanaimo.
It will provide daytime shelter on weekdays, including snacks throughout the day and a hot meal in the evenings. They hope to provide 40 to 60 chairs (at maximum capacity) for people to sit and stay warm.
Risebridge will be serving the community seven days a week with similar goals in mind.
The City of Nanaimo has also funded a 12-person unit of Community Safety Officers (CSOs) since July 2022. They work to connect the impoverished to support groups and organizations.
Under the community charter, they are bylaw officers with a different title. They are trained in self defense with certifications in Protective Force Options, but only to be used in extreme or emergency situations where 911 cannot be reached.
The unit consists of a wide range of backgrounds, including those of Indigenous heritage, social work positions, and ex-bylaw officers and law enforcement.
Senior Officer and Supervisor Barry Hornby advocates for a compassionate approach to handling the vulnerable population.
“We’re not here to judge, we’re here to help,” Hornby says.
Hornby touched on the difficulty of making positive relationships with certain individuals—some are hesitant to trust those in uniform—but it makes their central goals and values even more critical.
“It’s all about respecting the person,” Hornby says.
The CSOs also work closely with Stone Soup and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to hand out granola bars, socks, toques, hot chocolate, and other essentials to stay warm.
But there still seems to be a missing factor: long term solutions.
Short-term solutions such as new warming centres and safety officers are certainly steps in the right direction. But as the name implies, they’re not enough.
“Dealing with individual trauma and actual addiction,” are the most important things the City should focus on, Gordon Fuller, President and Chair of the 7-10 Club, says.
Fuller explains that with fewer beds than a decade ago, support systems in Nanaimo are no longer focusing on the root of the problem.
Quick solutions—including meal plans, nighttime shelters, and safe drug-use sites—are short-term and as some people believe it is prolonging the issue.
There is a mutual acknowledgement between the Safety Officers and the 7-10 Club that warming centres need to be available in more places than just downtown Nanaimo.
“You want to spread those smaller [services] out and mitigate them as best you can,” Fuller says.
Even Woodgrove Mall employees have noticed more people without places to stay in their area and would like to see a warming centre in the north end.
One employee asked me if there was somewhere they could tell them to go, and I replied, “No. That’s the problem; there is nowhere to go.”
Without warming centres available throughout Nanaimo, for example, much of the Safety Officers’ time seems to be for naught.
Their job is to encourage people to move to a place that may benefit their situation, but if there are none in the area, where are the homeless supposed to go?
Fuller refers to the “move-along policy,” which is a term he uses to describe the act of splitting up individuals from the safety of their groups. This sometimes makes them feel forced to move away from downtown—and away from help.
Organizations like the 7-10 Club may be able to feed 200 mouths a day, but without knowing where groups are for Outreach to get to, they may not be able to do so.
“We will go where we know people are and try to feed them, but if they’re no longer there, we can’t,” Fuller says.
Fuller strongly believes in safety in numbers.
Dropping food off at a group of eight or ten tents may be more beneficial in some circumstances than trying to move that whole group to Risebridge or Stone Soup Kitchen (meal services in downtown Nanaimo).
He suggests people bring in garbage bags and help the homeless clean their space rather than telling them to leave their tents and go elsewhere, especially at this time of year.
Fuller takes note of the way other communities have been able to start small camps of people, similar to the way of warming centres, where Outreach knows where people are and can readily support their needs.
Smaller groups have a stronger foundation, with a closely knit group of social workers working with the individuals living there.
For a community like Nanaimo, a better short-term solution is small centres, much like North Cowichan’s groups, with readily available Outreach and Island Health members coming and going into the units to bring food and medical supplies.
But the best long-term solution involves a housing-first strategy.
If people are housed and comfortable, with “no expectations on them” in regards to detoxing, they can be assessed for their needs. “If they want to work on those needs, you’re ahead of the game.”
Nanaimo works opposite to this strategy.
“People try to say housing first doesn’t work,” Fuller says. “But if it’s done properly, it does.”
Moreover, someone looking to detox must find an available clinic seat, which is more difficult than it sounds. Fuller explains that an individual seeking rehabilitation requires them to phone the desired clinic daily.
Imagine attempting to do this without a cell phone, without money for a payphone, and while struggling with an ongoing and demanding addiction.
More reliable treatment options must become available.
Nanaimo’s 2019 report on Funding for Long-Term Recovery Beds covers some of the ideas that shelter leaders like Fuller would like to see in action.
This report advocates for the funding of five new treatment beds through the John Howard Society (on top of the 15 established in 2021).
The report is centred around “Nanaimo’s Action Plan to End Homelessness,” which is a great headline, but perhaps a little idealistic.
While warming centres and meal plans are in use right now, Nanaimo also must work together to look ahead. Support from all angles in the community is the key to success. Finding buildings for the City to rent for temporary housing and warming centres is a good first step.
It is slow, but the ball is starting to roll.
More centres will ultimately support more people. And compassion will bring confidence in those who doubt the kindness of available support.
A home is more than a warm building with a bed. It is a foundation supporting life decisions and stability.
If the foundation breaks, the whole house collapses.
If you’d like to donate to the Nanaimo 7-10 Club Society visit Canada Helps.