The city and province are taking the issues surrounding social housing in Nanaimo’s north-end to the people.
As part of the provincial government’s Housing First initiative, up to 40 social housing units are planned at 6025 Uplands Dr.
Other Housing First projects in Nanaimo include an 18-unit development on Tenth Street for aboriginal youth and elders that opened this summer, a 36-unit on Wesley Street scheduled to open next spring, and a 35- to 40-unit project to be built at 1621 Dufferin Cres.
A 36-unit facility planned for 1406 Bowen Rd. was put on hold earlier this year following a series of contentious public hearings surrounding the project’s proximity to an elementary school, increased traffic and effect on property values.
The Uplands and Dufferin sites are properly zoned for social housing and do not require public hearings.
But in order to avoid a similar backlash that arose over the Bowen Road project, representatives of the city, province, RCMP and other stakeholders are talking to residents and business owners in the Uplands area.
One of the stumbling blocks in answering questions is that a non-profit operator, which will design, develop and operate the site, has not been chosen.
“Obviously we have to start talking and try provide explanations but we’re trying to do this on a small basis,” said Coun. Fred Pattje. “If we went into large meetings without the proper answers, we’d end up in the same awkward situation we did with Dufferin and Bowen.”
Consultations with area residents began Sept. 16 with meetings with strata councils, employees of the Vancouver Island Regional Library, Nanaimo Regional District and residents and staff at Nanaimo Seniors Village.
Meetings at McGirr Elementary School and Dover Bay Secondary School did not take place due to the teachers’ strike.
Brochures with frequently asked questions were delivered to households in the immediate area of the project and John Horn, city social planner, said plans are underway to meet with neighbours in single-family homes.
“We’re going building-by-building in our conversations with folks, and there’s been some good dialogue back and forth,” he said. “People are wondering security at the building, being able to continue walking around their neighbourhood, will residents of the building be attracting friends, and how will that be managed.”
Horn said the type of clients using the housing and the issues they might have is something the non-profit provider is better able to answer.
“Hopefully as soon as we get them on board, we will have an opportunity to provide more information about the type of clients who are going to be living there.”
RCMP Cpl. Dave LaBerge said he is trying to give residents who attend the meetings a concept of what the face of homelessness is all about.
“From our perspective, the typical person on the street is somebody that is in crisis and not really predatory in nature,” he said. “The other important piece of course is are homeless problem is across the community so a lot of the folks are already up in those neighbourhoods but are just largely invisible.”
Parksville-Qualicum Liberal MLA Ron Cantelon found most people supportive of dealing with the homeless issue and getting people off the street, but are also concerned with the impact on the community.
“Their fears centre around the fact there will be people who are still users of drugs and alcohol on the premise,” he said. “It’s a little difficult answering some questions not knowing who the non-profit operator of the facility is going to be but I think a lot of the issues were addressed.”
An operator for both the Uplands and Dufferin sites is expected to be chosen by December and the information meetings will continue until then.
“We’re trying to bridge the gap,” said Pattje. “Once the operator is known, communication will strictly be done by B.C. housing and that operator. Which is how it should have been from the beginning, but unfortunately the process doesn’t work that way.”
Mayor committed to plan
Mayor John Ruttan is not about to turn his back on Nanaimo’s homeless.
Ruttan joined representatives of the B.C. government and Canadian Mental Health Association Thursday to acknowledge work being done on 36-unit social housing project at 437 Wesley St.
As part of the B.C. Housing First initiative, the city is required to provide land for up to 160 units while the province partners with the Vancouver Island Health Authority and CMHA to provide staff and programming.
Amidst public backlash over a similar projects on Bowen Road, Dufferin Crescent and Uplands Drive, Ruttan said it’s getting difficult to find the time to explain why the city is doing this.
“Most of the concerns are from residents adjacent to, or very close to these projects and we totally understand that … we understand their anger,” he said. “But what we are trying to explain is that is a positive step.”
Ruttan said disadvantaged people are spread throughout the community, not just in the downtown core or along the waterfront.
“We need housing throughout the community to accommodate their needs,” he said. I’m optimistic that once these are up and running, we’re going to find that a lot of the concerns neighbours are expecting won’t come to be.”
The mayor is hopeful the people housed in the facilities will be respectful of the opportunity, appreciate the chances they’ve been given and act appropriately.
He has received comments from taxpayers who are struggling to get by and not receiving help from any level of government.
“It’s a valid point. But when you live in a all encompassing society like we do, we have to do something to try and help those who can’t help themselves,” he said. “Yes, their own choices may have led to the situation they are in, but there’s some history to support the fact a lot of them were born under very poor circumstances and haven’t had the educational opportunity to understand what they’re doing and where they’re at.
“I don’t know how other people want to react to it, but I find it so hard to turn my back, say they don’t exist and walk away.”