Nanaimo homeless population faces lack of affordable housing

Joe Fields panhandles for cash on Commercial Street in downtown Nanaimo Tuesday. Fields said with local shelters full he was trying to raise enough money to pay for a night in a nearby hostel. - CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin
Joe Fields panhandles for cash on Commercial Street in downtown Nanaimo Tuesday. Fields said with local shelters full he was trying to raise enough money to pay for a night in a nearby hostel.
— image credit: CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

It was a bitterly cold February night when I found myself standing behind a church with a handful of complete strangers.

Some of the people around me looked completely disheveled, while others looked toward the bright light emulating from a door as if it were home.

Perhaps for some it was. After all, I was standing around waiting for entry into one of Nanaimo's homeless shelters.

In an effort to better understand the plight of many of the city's homeless individuals, I spent a night at the First Unitarian Church's cold weather shelter, where guests are given a cot to sleep, dinner and breakfast. No one knew I was a reporter, especially not any of the people I stood with, waiting in line.

The shelter is situated in the basement of the church. A narrow hallway lined with shelves immediately greets visitors.

As I enter, I notice the dozens of occupied cots that line the basement's walls. A dozen more, mostly empty, fill the middle, including the one I would end up sleeping in.

I also notice the diversity of people – young, old, dark skinned, light skinned, men and women. Some looked as though they'd been on the streets for a long time, while others looked like someone you'd find at the mall.

The kitchen was just a few rows of tables near a television. As I ate the plate of macaroni and cheese with slices of hotdog I was served, I noticed the faces of those around me. Although the majority of individuals were already sleeping by the time I arrived, those who were up mostly ate their dinner or stared off into space, as if they preferred not to acknowledge the world in front of them.

A young man who looked to be no older than 20 pulled up a chair. His brown hair was cut into a mohawk and his pants were baggy.

"Mind if I sit beside you?" he asked.

I asked him where he was from and he tells me he's from "around here." The conversation switches to his dreams of visiting France, Mexico and other exotic destinations.

"I want to drive down to Mexico someday and keep going until I get to South America," he said.

He later tells me he's been coming to the shelter for a couple of months now and is hoping to get into some kind of social housing but that it is increasingly difficult. It was something I heard from a few of those I spoke with.

I climbed into my cot around 9 p.m. It wasn't terribly comfortable, but it was certainly more comfortable than sitting in economy class of a commercial jet.

The lights went out around 10 p.m. but the shelter was far from quiet.

The collective sounds of snoring, whispering, coughing and the occasional burp made it difficult to sleep.

It wasn't until 3 a.m. when I did finally fall asleep, only to be woken a few hours later by the sound of loud irritating clapping.

"Time to wake up," a female staff member yells.

Plenty of individuals had already left by then. I was exhausted. I hadn't slept well, but then again after all the noise, I can't imagine many others had, either.

In the morning, as I packed up my stuff, a man named Byron Dunbar, who had shown me the ropes the evening before, tells me finding housing in Nanaimo has been a real challenge for many of the city's homeless. He points to a woman named Natasha and says she's been trying to find a place for months.

"I've been coming here every night since November," she says. "There is nowhere else to go."

Speaking with the News Bulletin afterwards, Kevan Griffith, First Unitarian Fellowship shelter coordinator, says he sees a younger demographic and hears complaints about the lack of affordable housing in Nanaimo.

"Where are they going to get housing? They can't. There is nothing," he said. "I tell these guys it is easier once you got a place to live and you can shower everyday and things like that. At least if they have housing they can get into some kind of work program."

An individual on welfare in British Columbia receives $610 a month, while someone on disability receives slightly more than $900 a month.

Excluding social housing units, there are few places where less than $600 a month will fetch a one-bedroom or bachelor apartment in Nanaimo. When someone does find housing it doesn't mean they'll secure a lease. Griffith says most landlords require credit checks and homeless people often have little or no credit history.

"They're stuck. It's like a kid treading water. They can't take that first stroke," he said.

John Horn, the city's social planner, says homelessness and affordability is a problem in Nanaimo that they've struggled to deal with effectively.

"We should be doing more and we should have been doing more about 15 years ago," he said. "We had hoped and want the private sector to start building more rental housing because it would actually free up some of the lower-end stock."

The city is developing an affordable housing strategy, expected to be completed later this year. Horn says the city is concerned about the number of low- and middle-income earners who could become homeless or forced to move elsewhere if Nanaimo's rental rates continue to rise.

"You've also got the potential for middle-income job holding individuals to be priced out of the market, just like what is happening in Vancouver and Victoria," he said. "We want to have a strategy that speaks not just to the 'absolutely got nowhere to live' crowd, but also to the middle-income crowd."

A Point-in-Time homeless count and survey conducted last year by the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition revealed 175 homeless individuals in the city. According to a report issued by the coalition that year, 40 per cent of those who indicated they were homeless cited "evicted" or unable to pay rent as factors that led to their situation.

There are four supportive housing buildings scattered throughout Nanaimo, providing individuals an affordable place to live and support services. The buildings were designed to get some long-term homeless into housing, as well as a few transitory people.

"It didn't really turn out that way," Horn said. "We were a bit optimistic."

He said the city won't go down the path of constructing large-scale public-housing, nor use the ineffective approach of putting homeless into treatment centres before housing.

"We really are trying to increase the amount of rent supplements available and that is probably one of the log jams we're facing right now," he said. "We could theoretically continue to build affordable housing projects, which we will and are planning to in concert with our non-profit partners, but we are not able to do it at the pace to free up some lower-end rental stock."
Twitter: @npescod

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