Homeless activity leads to more security and cleanups at Nanaimo schools

Some approaches showing results, other solutions sought

Nanaimo school district has boosted cleanup and security at schools as homeless activity becomes more frequent.

Homeless activity around schools is nothing new, according to Dale Burgos, spokesman for the Nanaimo school district, who points out certain parts of schools are protected from the elements and so there can be homeless people and transients especially late at night and early in the morning. But activity is happening more frequently and what’s left behind – drug paraphernalia, garbage, food and feces – is causing a health and safety concern, he said.

District employees report the impact has increased from two schools to eight, including Uplands Park, Georgia Avenue and John Barsby Secondary, “so we’re seeing it spread a little bit,” said Pete Sabo, district director of operations, during a school board meeting last week, adding the schools on the list haven’t had one incident but a number of them that’s causing concern.

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The school district has put $18,000 toward the issue, with more custodians for certain schools that patrol and clean up first thing in the morning, extra security for schools and a security guard at École Pauline Haarer who remains there overnight. Fencing is also planned for the school.

The school district is also meeting with other parties, like the City of Nanaimo and RCMP, to discuss long-term solutions.

“Obviously the end goal is that we would be able to curb transiency in the district, but of course across central Island, really. It’s a broader issue and we’ve heard this many times from partners, from Island Health, from the City of Nanaimo that it has to be addressed and what does that mean?” asked Burgos.

Al Britton, manager of parks operations for the City of Nanaimo, said the groups are sharing what they are doing so that they don’t double up and are talking about long-term solutions, but there’s no real answer yet.

He said there has been a “major increase” in the last year to year and a half with how many needles are being picked up.

City staff patrol downtown every morning where the heaviest amounts of needles are found, but they are also being discovered as far as May Richards Bennett Pioneer Park and Loudon Park. The other day, Britton said there was a report of two or three needles at Linley Valley Park and a year or a year and a half ago, he said they’d never be found there.

Britton said there’s a focus on Comox Park because of the elementary school and the homeless tend to use drugs around the scout hut and a building there owned by the V.I. Raiders. Morning patrols begin and end at the school, bylaw officers visit the adjacent Comox Park three to six times daily and the city has given permission to the school district’s security guard to extend patrol from school grounds to the park.

Other measures include changing baseball dugouts from brick structures to mesh because people were staying inside and leaving drug paraphernalia there, and the city has put up boxes for used needles in places such as the washroom at Maffeo Sutton Park. Britton said the boxes are found full all the time, but the problem is hardcore users have a tendency of trying to break into boxes to get at the needles.

“There is no easy solution. It’s something that we all got to work together on, put our heads together, throw ideas out there and hopefully, one day, one of our ideas actually kicks in and does something,” said Britton, who also suggests that at a higher level, housing has to be found.

Const. Erik Wedholm, with the Nanaimo RCMP bike unit, said it’s “probably the hardest times we’ve seen in Nanaimo,” with the amount of people on the streets and the crisis point at which they are at.

“On the bike unit, we know the homeless population pretty well and we’ve never seen them so exhausted,” Wedholm said, adding when the homeless are at school property, the unit understands at times they are just walking through, but there is a group staying and leaving paraphernalia behind and that’s what police are trying to combat.

He also noted, based on file counts, that there has been an increase in homeless activity around schools and recently Pauline Haarer was most affected, but combined efforts, including security, seems to have made an impact.

“Unfortunately we are at the stage where we can’t arrest our way out of the homeless issue, we need housing and it’s simply not there and to try to solve that at a PAC level, and school district level, it’s going to be impossible,” he said. “We need all levels of government. We need everybody trying to understand what the issues are and come together to find appropriate solutions for a vulnerable population in our society.”



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