It’s 7:15 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 15, and a team of community safety officers are starting their morning rounds of Nanaimo’s overnight homeless encampments.
Their first stop is Wesley Street behind the City of Nanaimo’s services and resource centre building where about a dozen people spent the night under makeshift shelters.
One man and woman have simply slept on the pavement. The CSOs are concerned about the woman and ask her partner if she’s breathing. Is she OK? She stirs eventually and manages to prop herself up to a half-seated position.
CSOs-in-training Ron Litzenberger, a retired police officer from Regina; Kris Josefsson, retired bylaws officer from Campbell River; and Shannon Moore, who is from Nanaimo but worked in bylaws and law enforcement in San Francisco for 20 years, check on the people in the narrow street and bring them bottles of water and garbage bags.
Litzenberger, Josefsson and Moore are led by Barry Hornby, senior CSO and program supervisor, under the city’s new downtown community safety officers program, part of a downtown Nanaimo safety action plan.
In April, city council approved a $2.5-million annual budget for a range of new initiatives, including the hiring of 12 CSOs.
In addition to the CSO positions, the city will set up two permanent clean teams, launch a downtown ambassador program, fund a vandalism relief grant, add four parks ambassadors and provide additional parkade cleaning and other services to try to manage the impacts of homelessness and drug addiction.
The new CSOs are currently getting experience on Nanaimo’s streets and in parks, and are also learning in the classroom about a range of subjects from bylaws to addictions and mental health.
Dave LaBerge, Nanaimo’s manager of bylaw services and community safety, said he thought the positions might be hard to fill, but was surprised at the number of applicants and variety of backgrounds and skills of those who’ve been hired.
“We’ve got a good cross-section…” he said. “One fellow, who came from Canadian Mental Health, that’s been doing outreach in the community for the last 15 or 20 years. A young woman that came from running social programs out of the Salvation Army, with a criminology degree, that has a strong social sector background and then a number of people from other communities that have backgrounds in bylaws and regulatory … The neat thing is they’re going to hit the streets with just an abundance of … experiences.”
On Victoria Road near Cavan Street, about a half dozen men are camped on the sidewalk, which the city doesn’t permit. Hornby said the campers know the drill and most are amenable and comply with the bylaws officers and CSOs. In cases where people become threatening or unmanageable, police are the next tier of enforcement, but Hornby said the goal is to have positive interactions. It’s a challenge when new faces appear on the streets almost daily, as was the case with the group on Wesley Street.
“There’s a large amount of new faces every week … I know three of those people out of all of them and the rest are new,” he said.
Hornby said people arrive in Nanaimo from Vancouver and Victoria, sometimes sent by their own families, adding to Nanaimo’s growing homeless population. Estimates among bylaws staff range between 400 to 800 people experiencing homelessness in the city.
“There’s this [misconception] that Nanaimo has all these resources when we don’t have all these resources,” Hornby said. “We don’t have resources to look after people that are from Nanaimo, much less from somewhere else, but … people get dropped here from Victoria. They get thrown on the ferry from Vancouver.”
Many people camp where they are close to resources, such as the safe injection site on Wesley Street and an outreach pharmacy on Victoria Road. A community group also brings food to the area.
At Nob Hill Park, the team spots a tent under a tree where a man and woman have camped for the night. The park has a playground and is “a definite no-no” for camping, Hornby said.
The CSOs check the area for more campers, talk with the couple and explain they have to move within an hour. Hornby knows the couple.
“We … let them know it’s 10 to eight, this isn’t an area you can shelter, gave them some water and we’ll check back on them,” he said.
Litzenberger, 62, said he used to bring his children to the Island to camp and imagined living here after he retired, but he found a retirement of just skiing and hiking wasn’t fulfilling.
“I decided I still had that call to contribute and I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines,” he said. “This was such a great opportunity for somebody with my transferable skills … and at the end of the day, feel like you’ve done something worthy.”
Moore said she wants to return something to the community she grew up in.
“It’s community service … make it a safer place for everybody, right?” Moore said. “Rough living is not safe living, so make it as safe as you can for people who are in this lifestyle … We all have laws and rules that we have to abide by, whether it’s educating, or going around this morning and cleaning up, making sure people are still safe, but also making the downtown an area where people can come and enjoy it and feel safe as well.”
The idea is to establish a relationship of trust between the people living on the streets and community safety officers to develop a working relationship where compliance becomes the norm and the need for enforcement less common.
“When you know your neighbour, you’re more understanding and more willing to get along and it’s sort of like that,” Litzenberger said. “If you can get that little bit of a trust relationship then you might get compliance easier than if you’re a stranger … I find that you get, from both sides, a better understanding if there’s equal respect and equal worth.”
Nanaimo’s CSO teams will operate from early mornings to late nights by the end of September once they are fully trained, LaBerge said.
“We’ve got scarce resources and you want to apply the most appropriate resource for the situation,” he said.