Nanaimo’s homeless need compassion, not politics.
That’s the message a new organization is trying to convey in an effort to educate local residents as the Nov. 19 municipal election nears, hoping instead to bring awareness to the issue of supportive housing rather than a political bias.
In recent months, the Housing First strategy, an agreement between the city and province to house 160 of Nanaimo’s homeless, has come under fire as neighbourhoods selected to have low-barrier facilities lashed back at city hall.
In the spring, hospital area residents battled council over a proposed 36-unit low-barrier facility on Bowen Road and more recently, north-end residents had a similar reaction to a proposed 40-unit project on Uplands Drive near Hammond Bay Road.
Katie Durvin and Shayd Johnson, founders of the Green Light Project, are concerned the needs of Nanaimo’s most vulnerable citizens are being lost in the squabble.
“Green Light isn’t about telling people how to vote,” said Durvin, a fourth-year global studies student at Vancouver Island University. “It’s about stating the facts, something we feel hasn’t been done by some organizations on this issue, and raising awareness among Nanaimo residents.
“We’re asking people to do their research, decide for themselves how they feel about low barrier housing, and go vote taking into account low barrier housing and all of the other issues facing Nanaimo.”
The project has a steady core of five ‘executives’ and about 30 people working to bring the message to citizens.
Along with a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/supportgreenlight), Green Light assembled a street team to discuss topics with passersby, and members are working on a video that portrays how Nanaimo’s homeless and those who are at risk of being homeless live every day.
“I think it’s going to be powerful,” said Johnson. “What has been missing in this whole thing is who the people are we’re trying to help. Yes, some of them have addictions or alcohol issues, or emotional issues, but they’re not monsters. They’re single moms who don’t have enough money, elderly, people who need help, a place to live, a place to start over.”
Both Johnson and Durvin spent Wednesday morning passing out food to people at the 7-10 Club. While Durvin has been an advocate to help Nanaimo’s homeless for some time, it’s Johnson’s first foray into a challenging world.
“The experience sort of caught me off guard,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but people were extremely polite and helpful, they all said thank you with a smile, even the children.”
Green Light members have also visited low-income residents, people who live in private houses, apartments and boarding rooms. They’re concerned about the conditions they witnessed – from squalor, muold, cockroaches and rats to unsafe structures.
“And these places charge $400 to $600 for rent. These are not safe places to live, and because of the high rent people are trapped there, they can’t get ahead,” Durvin said. “You know, so many people are one or two paycheques, or some bad luck, away from that. A lot of people are on the fringe and they need help.”
Both Durvin and Johnson say they have faith in the components of the housing strategy, which requires an application process and monitoring of potential low-barrier housing residents before they are accepted to a unit, as well as the service providers chosen to oversee each facility.
Johnson, a photographer, said Green Light was created in reaction to a group called Concerned Citizens of Nanaimo, which emerged with some solid financial backing against the Uplands project. Johnson said he felt he needed to do something to provide a counterbalance to that group’s intent to stall or eliminate the project through media ads and an information mail-out to homes in the north end.
The title ‘Green Light’ was chosen to present a positive feel with a forward thinking attitude – green means go – rather than the “fear-based” and “aggressive” red motif chosen by CCN.
“We’re not competing with them. They’ve brought up issues like process and we agree the process hasn’t been perfect, but that’s not our issue. Our focus is providing people with a safe place to live,” said Johnson.
Durvin said conversation between the two groups, mostly through Facebook, has been encouraging, and she hopes it continues to be productive rather than inflammatory.
“It feels like we’ve been building bridges, not fences,” she said. “Our campaign is about respect and helping people, and making Nanaimo a better place to live for everybody.”