City council candidates Paul Chapman, left, Ben Geselbracht, Erin Hemmens, Peter Lee, Paul Manly, Janice Perrino and Michael Ribicic debate homelessness solutions and other topics on Thursday, Oct. 6, at Nanaimo District Secondary School. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)

City council candidates Paul Chapman, left, Ben Geselbracht, Erin Hemmens, Peter Lee, Paul Manly, Janice Perrino and Michael Ribicic debate homelessness solutions and other topics on Thursday, Oct. 6, at Nanaimo District Secondary School. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)

High school students in Nanaimo quiz council candidates

Thirteen candidates participate in series of three debates at Nanaimo District Secondary

The voters of tomorrow had plenty of questions for the election candidates of today.

Thirteen candidates for Nanaimo city council participated in a series three debates at Nanaimo District Secondary School, organized by teacher Dan Parker and moderated by students, on Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 5-6.

Some of the questions were about youth-focused issues such as public transportation and youth engagement, but the teens expressed interest in a range of civic affairs. One question that came up at all three debates was about approaches to homelessness.

Coun. Ben Geselbracht said the current city council has taken the issue seriously and said there’s a lot the city can do on the file. He pointed to the city’s systems planning organization for co-ordinating approaches, as well as its health and housing action plan. Geselbracht noted that there are various causes for homelessness and no one solution fits all.

“As city councillors, what we really need to be focusing on is how can we provide more leadership and facilitate this co-ordinated health, housing and safety response to reduce homelessness,” he said.

Coun. Erin Hemmens also referenced the systems planning organization, noting that a lot of service providers that were already combatting homelessness in their own ways will have better co-ordination moving forward.

“We’re going to do a triage to figure out what the population is and what they need,” she said.

Several candidates noted that homelessness can be caused by mental health and addictions issues, because of poverty, or just hard luck. Candidate Janice Perrino said some people experiencing homelessness need medical help, some just need a hand up and so solutions will come at the council table and through working with the health authority and the province.

“These people need help and you can’t just put them some place and hope they’re going to get well. It’s a whole program that we have to work on,” she said.

Candidate Peter Lee said housing with integrated services is needed, but added that those sorts of solutions will only come through partnerships and advocacy work.

“It’s essential, since housing is mostly under provincial jurisdiction – they provide funding and they choose who to deliver services [to] when it comes to housing, mental health and addictions – to collaborate with local non-profits and form a strategy to lobby and advocate to the provincial government,” he said.

Coun. Zeni Maartman said she has a lot of approaches in mind, but one in particular she’d like expanded is complex care, which commits health services to the most hard-to-house individuals in a community.

“Those who are a harm to themselves and a harm to society, we need to look after them,” she said.

Candidate Michael Ribicic said long-term solutions dealing with the root causes of poverty and mental health and addictions will make a difference, but said even Band-Aid solutions can help.

“In the end, we need more partnerships with non-profits, better relationships with the province and the federal government to get these projects going, because frankly they’re not happening at the level they should be,” he said.

Candidate Paul Chapman said taking criminality out of addictions and improving health and mental health care are part of the solution, and housing is another part. He said the city needs to be ready with zoning and sites to build social housing.

“As a city we need to come to a working consensus about overcoming our fears and understanding that the people that are experiencing homelessness come from every neighbourhood and the solutions are going to lie in every neighbourhood,” he said.

Coun. Tyler Brown also said the city should be identifying land for supportive housing units throughout the city, and he would like more complex care as well. He said he thinks there are 800-1,000 people who are unsheltered in Nanaimo and said while some of them need affordable housing, some require a housing-first approach.

“Housing first doesn’t mean housing only,” Brown said. “It means coming with services that wrap around and support individuals struggling with health matters. They are health matters. The police will be the first to tell you, often it’s not a criminal matter – there may be associated behaviour as a result of unmet health needs.”

Candidate Hilary Eastmure also expressed that she favours a housing-first approach and said more shelter space is needed in addition to affordable housing. She said when people think about homelessness, a certain image comes to mind, but the reality is that Nanaimo also has a lot of students, seniors and working parents who are precariously housed.

“Tents are going to be a reality. Even as fast as we can build affordable housing, we can’t build it fast enough,” Eastmure said. “So we need to make these places safe, where people can sleep in their car or their tent and have access to bathrooms, running water, health care, mental health supports and food so that they can get by.”

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Coun. Don Bonner added that he disagrees with those who argue that providing housing is outside the city’s mandate. He thinks the City of Nanaimo could work with developers, for example trading density on one project for helping to build social housing on a vacant lot somewhere else. He also said if re-elected, he would bring back to the table a past motion around constructing shelter.

“There’s nothing stopping the city from getting into the housing industry,” Bonner said.

Candidate Viraat BK Thammanna said while the city could take steps to speed up re-zoning and building permitting and encourage different housing types such as co-op housing and accessible housing, homelessness approaches should involve collaboration with the province’s housing and social development and poverty reduction ministries.

Candidate Paul Manly said the city should work with the non-profit sector and with senior levels of government, not just on partnerships for affordable housing, co-op housing and supportive housing, but also the accompanying health and social services needed.

“The issues of mental health and addiction, those are provincial jurisdiction as well, so we need the province to step up and help us with those issues with treatment beds, with mental health facilities and we need the federal government to work on criminal justice reform so that the people who are involved in criminality that have mental health and addiction issues have an alternate path – go to jail or get help,” he said.

Coun. Sheryl Armstrong said higher levels of government should get back to building social housing, but in the meantime, she thinks the city’s new community safety officers will have an effect in helping people experiencing homelessness who have chronic problems.

“A lot of people think these community safety officers are there just to put people in jail – farthest thing from the truth,” she said. “Their role is to try to connect these people to services and get them the help and the support they deserve.”

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