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City of Nanaimo will look at options to build its own shelter for unhoused people

Councillors vote 5-4 to ask for staff report on providing basic shelter
Nanaimo city council voted to ask for a report on options for designing, constructing and servicing shelter for 100 people experiencing homelessness. (News Bulletin file photo)

The City of Nanaimo will look to get into the business of creating shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

City council, at its meeting Monday, Feb. 27, voted 5-4 in favour of Coun. Erin Hemmens’s motion to ask for a city staff report on designing, constructing and servicing shelter spaces for 100 people on city-owned land.

She said she doesn’t have any specific design in mind, but mentioned options could include purpose-built covered platforms, sprung structures or repurposing existing buildings such as stables. Hemmens said she envisions trying to house the 100 “easiest to house” residents who are experiencing homelessness, and said waiting for other levels of government to provide shelter isn’t palatable to her.

“The suffering extends beyond those without homes and bleeds into our business community and our neighbourhoods which we at the city deal with every day,” she said. “We’re investing historic amounts into emergency services, security services, support services and we’re gaining no ground.”

Hemmens suggested council members who opposed her motion were indicating that housing people experiencing homelessness “isn’t our problem.”

Among the councillors who supported the shelter motion was Coun. Paul Manly. He is the executive director of Nanaimo’s Unitarian Shelter and he said some of the people accessing the shelter aren’t currently street-entrenched, but are at risk of becoming so in the future.

“We have a really inhumane situation here for people who are unhoused in our community. Every day the Unitarian Shelter turns people away who deserve a place to live,” he said.

Coun. Tyler Brown suggested the status quo isn’t working and so he’s curious to hear new ideas and see all levels of government implement new ideas.

“I think it’s the sum of a bunch of little things that will hopefully add up and make the community better over time and improve the situation over time,” he said.

Coun. Ben Geselbracht said it isn’t fair that the solution falls on property taxpayers when the city doesn’t have the same financial resources as the province.

“But that’s not the point,” he said. “I think the point of this motion says that we’re into finding solutions and we’re going to put the resources that we do have into looking at them.”

Some other council members argued against the motion, including Coun. Janice Perrino who referenced the city’s 7.3-per cent property tax increase several times. She said that paying for housing was not only outside the city’s core service delivery at a time of increasing infrastructure costs, but that it might also impact the city’s ability to pay for other priority projects.

Coun. Sheryl Armstrong threw out a figure of $30 million as a potential price tag for housing for 100 people. She also argued against duplicating work for staff, noting that council has already seen reports on building tiny homes, on available parcels of land, and on service providers’ limitations.

“We have all these reports already,” she said. “We’ve got an affordable housing strategy, then why aren’t we doing it?”

Coun. Ian Thorpe expressed fears that the city might be “creating another tent city” and Mayor Leonard Krog also opposed the motion, saying he doesn’t want property taxpayers to foot the bill for decades of “failed social and health policy” layered with an opioid crisis.

“Taking 100 of the easy-to-house folks off the streets is not going to remove one troublesome human being from the streets who is already, we well know, the most frightening for the public, the ones likely to be involved in crime, the ones who are stealing to support their drug habits, the ones who have engaged in the behaviours, arguably, that have led to serious injury, if not death of citizens in our community,” Krog said. “So this is not going to solve the problem.”

Perrino, Armstrong, Thorpe and Krog voted against the motion.

City staff is directed to have the report prepared by June 1.

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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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