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Nanaimo council opens city coffers to pay for winter warming space

City will fund Risebridge’s warming centre, and is interested in funding more warming centre space
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City council has approved $230,000 for winter warming centre. (News Bulletin file photo)

BY CHRIS BUSH

The City of Nanaimo will pony up about $230,000 from city coffers for a daytime warming centre this winter.

The motion to fund the space passed Wednesday, Nov. 1, at a special council meeting that followed a governance and priorities committee meeting Oct. 23 when a Nanaimo Systems Planning Organization report informed council that no daytime warming centre locations, other than one provided by Risebridge Society, had been identified and no funding sources were apparent.

“Obviously there is great community concern as we approach the cold weather and we have not seen the kinds of responses that one would hope in terms of a broad interest in providing these services,” said Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog.

City staff, however, came to the meeting with news that surplus money had been found from an asset retirement project that came in under budget by about $400,000.

The province provides money to operate overnight and daytime shelters during extreme weather conditions, but not for daytime warming shelters under normal winter conditions, which leaves municipalities to find the money and warming spaces that, in Nanaimo, are in short supply relative to the city’s unhoused population.

Risebridge Society’s centre has room for about 48 people, far short of what’s needed.

Questioned by Coun. Janice Perrino about what services are available, Christy Wood, city social planner, said several agencies, including the Vancouver Island Regional Library, are open to the public, and lobbies of city facilities will also be open for warming, but no additional sites had been identified that will be open throughout the day, other than those that receive provincial funding to operate under extreme cold weather conditions, such as St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church and the Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo.

“My concern is the number of people that may be going to Risebridge,” Perrino said.

Coun. Paul Manly expressed similar concern.

“When 35 people are leaving St. Peter’s and 27 people are leaving the Unitarian and there’s already a number of people camped in the parks and sleeping rough in the downtown, it’s not going to leave a lot of available space,” he said.

Coun. Tyler Brown moved that council direct staff to reallocate $230,000 from the asset retirement project surplus to operate a seven-days-per-week warming centre between Nov. 14 and March 31, and to enter into a service agreement with Risebridge Society to “provide warming centre services during identified warming centre service gaps and to mitigate the impacts on surrounding neighbourhoods through the good neighbourhood agreement requirements.”

Coun. Erin Hemmens noted the latest official count of people living on the street in Nanaimo is 512, but people who work with the unhoused population indicate the actual number is closer to 800. She asked if the city could put out a call or expression of interest for potential warming centre operators to step forward and be compensated with the remaining $170,000 in the surplus.

“I would like other service providers to be able to have a voice in saying, ‘Hey, we could also do that,’” she said.

Dale Lindsay, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the surplus money could be used to compensate additional service providers, or, if council wished to direct even more money for warming services, “that would allow us to go out and work with our partners and bring back options to council.”

Manly proposed that the main motion be amended to include a call for expressions of interest from other service providers and that additional funds be allocated for those entering into an agreement with the city.

Krog expressed his “incredible resentment” that council has to consider spending money on something he said is “clearly a provincial, potentially federal, responsibility.”

“I think we all know how this vote is going,” the mayor said. “It is what we can do. It isn’t what we should be doing or have to do, but that is the role that we have been given in the circumstances. It is either this or … we leave 800 of our fellow citizens out there in the streets with no place to get warm during the day … I hope the province hears us as the province hears from other British Columbians who are all getting tired.”

Council voted unanimously to direct staff to reallocate up to $230,000 from the asset retirement project surplus to fund warming centre services, to authorize a service agreement with Risebridge Society to provide warming services, and to call for expressions of interest from agencies able to offer additional warming services.

It was also moved and seconded that correspondence be sent to B.C. Premier David Eby outlining the continued and severe health needs of unsheltered populations in Nanaimo and the community-wide need for provincial funding, that matches the scale of the crisis, for programs and shelter space.

READ ALSO: City of Nanaimo facing cold weather shelter funding and space challenges