The Wesley Street encampment earlier this fall. (News Bulletin file photo)

The Wesley Street encampment earlier this fall. (News Bulletin file photo)

‘Disorder, conflict, violence, frequent overdoses’: Why Nanaimo tent city was dismantled

City of Nanaimo says had fire happened at night, the result would have been multiple fatalities

Nanaimo’s tent city was unsafe, unlawful and unsustainable, which is why it was dismantled after a fire earlier this month, says the city.

The City of Nanaimo released today a four-page report from its bylaws department on the Wesley Street encampment, the Dec. 3 fire and the city’s response to the fire, following criticism after it displaced the people who had been residing there and bulldozed the site.

“The encampment on Wesley Street by its very nature was no longer sustainable, it was unsafe and unlawful, and it is disingenuous to suggest that there was improper motive for its closure,” the report said.

The report noted that there had been three other fires at the encampment over the four weeks leading up to the Dec. 3 fire, when a candle ignited an unoccupied tent against the side of the Franklyn Street gym.

“Had this fire occurred during night hours when adjacent structures were occupied, there would have been multiple fatalities,” the report speculated.

The report addressed specific complaints about loss of property and lack of access to Wesley Street after the fire, suggesting “misrepresentation” of events.

The report outlined the history of the encampment and noted that although city bylaws do not permit structures on road rights-of-way, “exceptions were made” for a small group of people sheltering on Wesley Street in 2019 due to its location close to social services and with consideration for the hardships of packing up shelters each morning. However, the encampment grew and began to develop some of the same characteristics that had made Discontent City “untenable,” said the report.

“A robust and intensive open-air drug market evolved around Wesley Street encampment, which not only attracted more inhabitants, but also brought many itinerant folks onto the street where drugs were openly sold and consumed without inhibition,” the report noted. “Disorder, conflict, violence and frequent overdoses accompanied this culture.”

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Bylaws noted that by early 2020, the encampment had sprawled onto the road, “the street was littered and filthy and infested with vermin” and one to four truckloads of garbage were hauled away every morning.

The report said residents from the neighbourhood would wander down Wesley in the mornings “looking for their patio furniture, their tools or their children’s bicycles. As often as not, they would find what they were looking for.” The report also described an incident in which “a local professional from a nearby business” was met with hostility and abuse as he retrieved cement blocks that had been stolen from a wall around his office, and “was visibly shaken and defeated” afterward.

“The plight of homelessness and this terrible fire incident are tragedies, but it is also important to consider that there are many people who live and work in this neighbourhood who have been impacted and deeply traumatized by these events,” the report summarized.

The full report was posted on the city’s website Tuesday after Nanaimo city council voted 5-2 at a meeting Monday to release the report publicly. Councillors Tyler Brown – who said he hadn’t yet seen the report – and Don Bonner voted against releasing the report and councillors Ben Geselbracht and Erin Hemmens did not vote.

READ ALSO: Nanaimo’s health and housing task force presents action plan to address homelessness

READ ALSO: City dismantling Wesley Street homeless encampment after fire

Jake Rudolph, the city’s chief administrative officer, told councillors at the meeting that bylaw crews have been redeployed from Wesley Street to various parks and said it’s resulted in more bylaws coverage around the city than there was previously.

“There have been some short-term locations of smaller groups of people in different locations in and around the downtown and the parks and that’s been something that’s been a concern,” he said.

However, he said so far the displacement of Wesley Street residents who were experiencing homelessness has “not become a localized problem” in another areas.

“There were some attempts to establish larger concentrations of folks and that’s always been our mandate to not allow that to happen,” Rudolph said.

He said the dismantling of the Wesley Street encampment has been met with positive feedback from surrounding businesses.

“It’s been a much different environment around the civic precinct complex here, to be honest,” Rudolph said. “There’s been a tremendous amount of relief for the organization and staff here that’s taken place in the last week and it’s a much safer and congenial environment, for the security guards even that are working in the area.”

He added that there were shelter beds available in Nanaimo every night last week.

READ ALSO: Nanaimo citizens ask about housing and homelessness at budget-focused town hall meeting



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