Nanaimo city council, at a meeting Wednesday, April 1, passed various measures aimed at trying to help protect people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

City of Nanaimo takes measures to protect people experiencing homelessness during pandemic

City to provide additional water sources and washrooms, council directs creation of food plan

Many are self-isolating from coronavirus in their homes, but for those experiencing homelessness, that’s not an option, and the city recognizes that challenge.

City council, at its special meeting Wednesday, passed three motions that addressed pandemic response as it relates to people experiencing homelessness.

“This population is at high risk of transmission of COVD-19 which puts at a greater risk the rest of our larger community,” said Coun. Ben Geselbracht. “So I think … we need to help the province help us.”

Council passed unanimously recommendations to endorse staff’s plan to provide additional washrooms and hand-sanitizing facilities in the downtown, and re-convene the city’s health and housing task force.

Additional motions put forward by Coun. Don Bonner, for a co-ordinated emergency response to the pandemic for those experiencing homelessness, and for a related food plan, also passed, though they were not unanimous.

Bonner’s first motion called for the city to work with the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition, Island Health and B.C. Housing to co-ordinate an emergency response; however, some members of council felt that the city was already doing that sort of work. Coun. Sheryl Armstrong was concerned about potential costs as well as the draw on staff resources.

“What about the other 99,500 people in this community?” she asked. “Are we now going to set up task forces to help those in isolation? Are we going to set up funding for those in isolation? … We have to remember, we’re a city of 100,000 people, not just 500 people and to keep taking our staff time in the time of a pandemic and a crisis and keep applying all of it to homelessness, to me is not right.”

Coun. Ian Thorpe said the motion felt redundant considering the work that is already happening and the leadership that the provincial government is providing.

“We are in a position where we need to take the lead of the province on this and react to what they tell us to do, not to spend our staff’s time co-ordinating local agencies to possibly come up with recommendations that we will not be able to follow because that will not be within our purview,” Thorpe said.

Coun. Tyler Brown said the co-ordinated response is necessary in order to protect the most vulnerable residents of the city.

“While we might struggle with indecision and who’s doing what and all that sort of thing, I am very assured that the particular virus we’re facing does not suffer from indecision,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely crucial that we get everybody talking, reduce confusion, figure out the logistics and make sure that those folks are isolating correctly.”

As far as a food plan, council will direct the health and housing task force to create that response. Dale Lindsay, the city’s general manager of community development, said B.C. Housing is working on a plan for mobile distribution of food. The majority of council didn’t wish to wait.

“I’m hearing from service providers that they’re transitioning their staff – who are front-line clinical workers – to food service production, making sandwiches,” said Coun. Erin Hemmens. “So for me, this is top priority.”

Staff’s plan to improve access to washrooms and hand-washing facilities will include extending hours that washrooms are open – the one at Diana Krall Plaza will be open 24/7 – as well as installing three port-a-potties. Lindsay said staff’s expectation is that the province, through Emergency Management B.C., will reimburse the city for those measures.

Lindsay noted, as well, that the City of Nanaimo was asked by the province last week to provide a list of buildings that could be suitable for shelter if needed, and has complied. He said municipalities have been ordered to remove barriers to supporting vulnerable populations during the pandemic.

“If there was a requirement to set up an emergency shelter or a food bank in a location to respond to the pandemic, we should make our best efforts to deal with any of our regulatory issues,” Lindsay said. “For example the zoning bylaw. We would look to other tools, like temporary use permits … in order to expedite that type of use.”

Hemmens, co-chair of the health and housing task force, said that group wants to be involved in working toward solutions during the pandemic.

“We want this work. We would like to be developing a food plan, just like we ticked off some boxes with the water and washrooms today. We would like to be co-ordinating an emergency response,” she said. “Recognizing that staff are already involved in those conversations, but bringing the group back together and tasking them, provides that kind of leadership and co-ordination so no one feels like they’re outside of the room or outside of the decision-making.”

The motion to co-ordinate an emergency response plan passed 5-4 with Mayor Leonard Krog and councillors Jim Turley, Thorpe and Armstrong opposed. The motion to direct the health and housing task force to create a food plan for people experiencing homelessness passed 6-3 with councillors Turley, Thorpe and Armstrong opposed.

READ ALSO: First two COVID-19 deaths hit Vancouver Island, says B.C’s top doctor

READ ALSO: Shoplifting way down, break-and-enters up in Nanaimo during COVID-19 pandemic

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