Nanaimo has nearly doubled its homeless population in two years. Campbell River has seen its numbers increase by a similar amount.
Cowichan’s numbers are up 75 per cent and those in the Comox Valley saw a 50 per cent increase.
The numbers unveiled to the City of Nanaimo this week as it works on its affordable housing strategy certainly brought an increased sense of urgency to the need for solutions.
City council, at a meeting Monday, heard presentations on the recent homeless count and on a homelessness action plan and were told that Nanaimo is experiencing a crisis with at least 335 people experiencing homelessness.
Signy Madden of the United Way, John McCormick of the John Howard Society and Violet Hayes of the Island Crisis Care Society presented the reports.
Madden, executive director of the United Way Central and Northern Vancouver Island, said it’s important to recognize Nanaimo is in a crisis.
“We’ve got a different scope of homelessness now,” she said. “It’s the chronic, and it’s also the folks who’ve never experienced homelessness.”
The presenters stressed that although the homeless count shows numbers and statistics, there are real people behind every tally mark.
“Each and every one of the folks that was interviewed and surveyed through the count is a member of our community. Their stories are powerful and they’re all deserving of a home,” Madden said.
The point-in-time homeless count took place in April, a little over two years since the last count. In that time, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Nanaimo nearly doubled from 174, and Madden said “we know that we under-count by large percentages.”
The count involved about 50 volunteers from the community and various service agencies surveying people experiencing homelessness. Affordable housing was identified by nearly 200 respondents as a solution, and that’s what service providers are asking for, too.
Madden said wet and dry housing is needed.
“If we don’t have any options to place people out of shelters and into affordable housing, it’s not good and that’s what we’re seeing,” Madden said.
McCormick, executive director of the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society, said there’s been a narrative that homeless people move to Nanaimo, but “this not an imported problem, per se,” he said. “It’s an affordable housing problem and it’s a locally grown problem in some respects.”
The Nanaimo’s Action Plan to End Homelessness 2018-2023 report lists 10 approaches, including increasing shelter beds, creating a drop-in centre, increasing rent supplements, developing affordable housing, preventing housing loss, managing addictions and mental health, integrating indigenous considerations and preventing homelessness through agency co-ordination.
McCormick said there’s a lot of focus around the community on homelessness at the moment.
“And that presents an opportunity for us to take bold action to try and really get a hold of this,” he said.
Coun. Jim Kipp said city councillors had to stand up and fight over wet housing and said that’s something that’s worked, but he said the cracks in the social services continuum scare him.
“You’re saying [the intention] is no one falls though the cracks. They can’t get into an office when it’s open when they need help. How are we getting increased services?” he asked. “If we have a doubling of our numbers in a two-year-period, how are we approaching the provincial government to get more services on the ground in Nanaimo during the ground, more crisis teams? It’s a tough one for me, absorbing the social issues when the provincial and federal government have the money; they collect their money here in town.”
Madden mentioned that the federal government announced just this week a continuation of funding for services in Nanaimo through the federal homelessness strategy.
Council voted unanimously in favour of receiving the reports, with an eye to fitting them together with an affordable housing strategy. Coun. Bill Yoachim said he wasn’t content just to receive the information, though.
“We’re in a crisis here and I like some of the recommendations in there…” he said. “We’ve got to really tackle this. A five-year plan’s great, but let’s also deal with a six-month plan.”
City social planner John Horn replied that “our goal now is to implement this plan to take it from a strategic point of view into a what-do-we-do-next point of view.”