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City of Nanaimo recognizes homelessness as 'existential crisis'

City council consents to mayor's leaders' table recommendations
Nanaimo city council consented to a series of mayor's leaders' table recommendations, including one recognizing homelessness as an existential crisis.

As the number of residents experiencing homelessness continues to climb, Nanaimo council voted in favour of a motion recognizing it as an "existential crisis" in the city.

The motion had five sections which were referred to the Nanaimo Systems Planning Organization to incorporate into its work plan.

The other four include formally endorsing the concept that homelessness violates the principle of human dignity; adopting 'housing first plus' as the foundational element of a homelessness strategy; creating a purpose-driven housing first plus position; and developing a robust plan to minimize the number of people at risk of homelessness. 

"What council was really saying was we want this to go to the organization that is helping co-ordinate the city's contribution and try to enhance the work of the systems planning organization," Mayor Leonard Krog told the News Bulletin. "The term 'existential crisis,' which I know draws attention and sticks in people's minds, I think reflects the reality of the 900 to 1,000 people we have on our streets and it reflects the level of concern as expressed."

The purpose of the SPO is to provide research, data, analysis, education and information related to the community's homelessness response as well as provide co-ordinated action and advocacy by community partners, including all levels of government.

John McCormick, the SPO's executive director, said in many respects, a housing-first-plus model is already in place. 

"Nanaimo is one of 60-odd communities across the country that were part of the initial housing-first effort," McCormick told the News Bulletin.

Housing first plus is a system that means simplifying the housing process to offer unconditional tenancies as quickly as possible to people without homes, as well as wraparound supports. The position was previously adopted in Basel, Switzerland, in 2020 as part of a pilot project commissioned to be carried out by the Salvation Army. In Basel, the rent was covered by social assistance up to the defined maximum limit.

To translate it to Canada, McCormick said all government bodies need to be on the same page.

"Housing per say is not really a city jurisdiction, it's more provincial or some would argue federal," he said. "The Switzerland model is guiding, but it's a different jurisdiction and has very different rules and jurisdictions." 

The motion stemmed from a recommendation from the mayor's leaders' table, which was focused on finding solutions for the growing number of homeless residents in the city.

Speaking to council ahead of the motion's passing on June 17 was David Witty, a senior fellow of urban design with Vancouver Island University's master of community planning program and a member of the mayor's leaders' table.

"The numbers of housing and the right types of housing are still not enough," Witty told council. "Not withstanding the good work to date, the numbers of homeless continue to increase at a rate of 30 per cent per year approaching a thousand in this year and possibly 2,500 in 2030 if those numbers continue to spiral out of control."

While the motion passed unanimously, Coun. Paul Manly and Coun. Ian Thorpe both expressed that funding would be a challenge to house every homeless resident.

"Here, we don't have the funding to deal with what is an 'existential crisis,' as you identified," Manly said. "We have a serious problem here. If we had enough money to throw at it I'm sure we could deal with it, but that is the key issue. There's no problem with will here, but there is a serious problem with finances."

Witty agreed.

"We know we don't have the resources. I agree 100 per cent, I think senior levels of government are failing in this area, I'm just surprised [the Federation of Canadian Municipalities] isn't all over this…" Witty said. "There's interest in housing first plus. I think it can be done here, I actually do believe it, I'm not a pollyanna, I'm a pretty clear-headed person I think. It's just that we're not looking at it with the kind of rigour and detail and approach that's in this report that I advocate."

McCormick told the News Bulletin that the city is in "unprecedented times" for the growing number of community members experiencing homelessness, made up of everyone from young people who can't find housing to seniors unable to afford an apartment.

"We're doing some really good work, but it doesn't mean that we're anywhere near where we need to be…" McCormick said. "It's going to take money, it's going to take resources and it's going to take a commitment from the community and it's going to take a provincial commitment – these are all things that are happening in some ways."

Jessica Durling

About the Author: Jessica Durling

Nanaimo News Bulletin journalist covering health, wildlife and Lantzville council.
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