'We can't revisit this'
Residents concerned over the proposed location of two low-barrier housing units in the Hospital District area continue to dig in their heels in opposition to the projects.
But as opposition mounts — both the Hospital Area Neighbourhood Association and the Quarterway School Parent Advisory Committee have voiced strong opposition to the size of the facilities — Mayor John Ruttan warns that if these location selections fail, it is likely the entire Housing First program intended to house Nanaimo's homeless will also fail.
"If we acquiesce to one area, that effectively ends the program so we might as well pick up the phone, phone the province and say to them we can't do it and here is your $34 million back," said Ruttan. "We can't revisit this. The money will be gone."
The issue flared up again last week when council passed the first two readings to rezone land at 1406 Bowen Rd., a potential site for a 35-unit low-barrier facility. Another one is also proposed at 1598 Townsite Rd., in the east part of the Chinese Cemetery.
Both locations are in the vicinity of Quarterway Elementary School.
The Housing First strategy was implemented by Nanaimo's previous council in partnership with the province, Canadian Mental Health Association and Vancouver Island Health Authority. The city's role is to supply land, while the other agencies are contracted to manage the program.
Gwen Boyd, president of the Hospital Area Neighbourhood Association, said it's clear everybody wants to see Nanaimo's homeless helped, but putting two facilities close to an elementary school with 340 children is a concern.
"There is a legitimate concern for the children's safety and the fact they don't understand the issue, they're too young. They don't have the cognitive abilities to understand. We have concerns about the kind of people who will be attracted to the area. If these people are allowed to do drugs, where are they going to get them from?"
That question was also asked in Duncan prior to the opening of the Warmland House, an $8.47-million 'wet house' built across the street from Alexander Elementary School and Quamichan Middle School, as well as Cowichan School District offices.
Warmland House opened Dec. 15, 2009. It has 15 short-stay beds and 24 transitional apartments, and the main floor serves as program space for community use.
Cowichan school board chairwoman Candace Spilsbury confirmed there hasn't been any instances of unwanted contact between residents of Warmland and students despite the close proximity, and RCMP reports back that up. She said the success has been due to an open and honest public consultation process that took place from the beginning.
"The community process was quite long-term and very involving, very inclusive of the community," said Spilsbury. "The Community Advisory Committee was already in place, so Social Housing Cowichan, which was leading the Warmland House location, worked with them to involve the broader community. There were a lot of questions asked but collectively there were no concerns that stayed that would negate Warmland locating where it did."
Instead, the schools are using Warmland as a resource. Residents at the facility have a garden and some of the food grown is taken into the schools to teach children about food security, production and nutrition through school-based Green Communities.
Spilsbury said the opportunity has been "a very positive experience" for those involved and that Warmland is viewed by many as a community resource. She also said the facility is located near numerous apartment blocks.
"The students who attend the schools – they and their families are also neighbours," she said. "It's all tied together."
On a trip to witness Warmland and the surrounding community first-hand, Boyd said she talked to many local businesses and discovered that while no serious events have taken place with respect to Warmland residents, some shop owners have had minor complaints.
"Our neighbourhood already has its share of social service facilities," said Boyd. "These projects may be the tipping point."
Coun. Fred Pattje also canvassed Warmland and its surrounding area. He came away feeling the project did what it was intended to do – give homeless people with drug, alcohol and mental issues a safe place to live and the chance to become functioning members of society.
"We do have to listen to our constituents and we have," said Pattje. "But the homeless are our constituents, too. We need to get these people the help they're entitled to."
Under the Housing First partnership agreement, the city's role is to provide the land with the assistance of B.C. Housing. Criteria is considered, such as proximity to public transit, the hospital and pharmacies. Once secured, the province funds the building costs and finds an organization to manage the facility, ensuring there are at least two highly trained managers on-site at all times.
Residents selected are chosen through Assertive Community Treatment programs, which consists of 12 specialists on the street performing case work.
According to the project's memorandum of understanding, the city has to provide enough land for 160 residential units. Along with the two already mentioned, other sites include 437 Wesley St. and a location in the north end that will likely be revealed within the next two weeks. Once established, the province has guaranteed funding over 60 years.
"Once these people are in a safe place, they behave differently from the very beginning. That has been proven ," said Pattje. "They don't have to fight or argue or rob or whatever. In my heart of hearts I think this will work."
Boyd said her organization is not against helping the homeless. It just wants the locations reviewed.
"Our suggestion is to reduce the size to 12 units and scatter them around the city. It has been proven that smaller sites work better."
Ruttan said the city's Homelessness Action Plan has already been successful over the last five years, and for it to continue to be successful, the community has to be on board.
"[Opponents] search tirelessly for reasons why it shouldn't be there, not why it should and I respect them for that, but we need to stay the course" he said. "To go partway down a project and then not go through with it is unacceptable."
Ruttan notes the original opposition was strong against the Harris House – a facility where addicts can get clean drug paraphernalia to reduce the transmission of disease – but over three years, he is unaware of any major issues.
"The alternative to not go through with this is to accept the fact that we'll go back to the way it was with people sleeping on the streets and in parks or doorways. We'll have failed our homeless and, in my opinion, we'll have failed as a community."