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City of Nanaimo creates agency to co-ordinate efforts to combat homelessness

Systems planning organization will be tasked with implementing health and housing plan
The City of Nanaimo is establishing the Nanaimo Systems Planning Organization Society, an independent agency that will be tasked with co-ordinating efforts to combat homelessness. (News Bulletin file photo)

The City of Nanaimo will set up a new independent agency to try to develop a more co-ordinated and less reactive approach to dealing with homelessness.

City council, at a meeting Monday, May 2, voted unanimously to approve a charter and direct staff to set up the Nanaimo Systems Planning Organization Society.

The city is budgeting $480,000 per year for five years for the new agency. The SPO’s purpose, according to a staff report, is to “provide research, data, analysis, education and information” related to homelessness prevention and response, and co-ordinate action and advocacy of non-profits and other partners.

“We have a system in which all these different non-profits get funding to provide a service to the homeless, but there’s not really anyone taking a bigger-picture look,” said Bill Corsan, the city’s director of corporate and business development.

There may be duplication of efforts in one aspect of social services, and a gap in another, he said, which is where improved co-ordination could be helpful.

The SPO would also be tasked with building an understanding of how homelessness is growing, receding and changing, said Corsan, and responding to that research and data.

Signy Madden, regional director with United Way B.C., said a co-ordinated response to homelessness has been a challenge in Nanaimo.

“If we aren’t collecting data consistently, if we aren’t analyzing the data consistently and we don’t have a strategy across our multiple non-profits to address this, we can end up not solving the problems that we need to solve,” she said.

United Way distributes federal Reaching Home funding to non-profits working to help people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. That co-ordinated project, however, tends to support a slate of reactive programs and services.

“To solve homelessness and address the affordable housing issue, you need the province, you need the city and you need the other funds like Reaching Home to be in an aligned plan,” Madden said. “If there is no housing and supportive housing to move people into, our challenge is we’re funding warming shelters, cooling shelters, programs that maybe assist people for a short-term … what we’re talking about is pushing stuff upstream and having the strongest capacity to make the case for our community to get the maximum amount of support from the province on multiple levels.”

A systems planning organization that has an up-to-date homelessness count and the data to differentiate between contributing factors such as poverty, mental health and addiction will be better-equipped to identify the types of housing and services needed, Madden suggested.

She said she’s thankful for the local non-profit sector’s front-line work during the pandemic and its ability to pivot its service delivery, and said she sees a willingness in the sector to embrace Nanaimo’s new systems planning organization and work co-operatively.

“They understand it’s in everyone’s best interests to work together,” said Corsan. “[The SPO] is going to have to build relationships with the non-profits and it’s going to have to show value that it actually helps them do their jobs better to be effective.”

READ ALSO: Nanaimo’s health and housing task force presents action plan to address homelessness

Coun. Don Bonner, who was a member of the city’s health and housing task force, said he hopes and believes the systems planning organization will be successful and said Nanaimo is showing leadership with a “ground-breaking” approach.

Coun. Erin Hemmens, who was also a member of the health and housing task force, said she hopes people manage expectations to allow the systems planning organization to gain a footing.

“A lot of effort and a lot of hands and a lot of heart has gone into this, and I think it’s something that offers us an interesting and hopeful path forward on a very, very sticky issue,” she said.

The systems planning organization will be guided by a board of directors, managed by an executive director and will be responsible for its own operational needs such as bookkeeping. The city envisions the SPO will hold its inaugural meeting by the summer and have an executive director in place in the fall.

READ ALSO: City asking province for complex care housing in Nanaimo

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About the Author: Greg Sakaki

I have been in the community newspaper business for two decades, all of those years with Black Press Media.
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