People who make up part of Nanaimo’s homeless community gathered for a camp-out on the front lawn of city hall Monday to protest lack of shelter facilities.
The camp-out was staged in response to the recent loss of $7.25 million of provincial money to construct low-barrier housing in Chase River after the location was rejected by that neighbourhood and city council.
The protest was organized locally with help from SOLID (Society of Living Illicit Drug users), a peer-run advocacy and education organization that has been operating in Victoria since 2003 and is doing a three-month trial program in Nanaimo to employ drug users to hand out harm-reduction supplies and help with naloxone training.
“That would have been 44 units that would have helped the homeless or people experiencing chronic homelessness here in Nanaimo … the solution to the homeless problem is housing and the city had an opportunity to do that and they handled it very poorly,” said Kevin Donaghy, volunteer with SOLID.
Donaghy said homeless people in Nanaimo go through a daily revolving door of using emergency shelters overnight and then being forced to find places to warm up for a couple of hours before they are asked to move somewhere else. He said housing is an integral component of harm reduction.
“It’s and hour or two here and an hour or two there before they’re able to go back to the shelter and then they’re released from the shelter at seven in the morning and the cycle continues.”
About a dozen people were at city hall with tents by 8 a.m., but more gathered throughout the morning, including James Reardon, a drug user who said he’s stayed clean for more than two days so he could take part in the protest.
“You know, you can’t complain about poverty if you’re not trying to solve it … I cleaned up a couple days ago before coming here so I could have a voice and be, like, respected and be part of this thing and be an example instead just like the blind leading the blind … if we could maybe make a difference that would be cool,” Reardon said.
Gina Watson, a SOLID volunteer who has been homeless for about 18 months, hopes a place can be set up where people can at least stay through the day and be warm.
“Like, peer-run. We would run it. Maybe with laundry services,” Watson said. “A place where we could hang out and be warm and be ourselves and not trouble on the street and garbage everywhere,” she said.
Coun. Jerry Hong said he didn’t think individuals protesting at city hall were homeless people.
“They are not homeless,” he said. “I don’t see a single homeless person. I am right here. I am looking right at them.”
Hong said when it came to the Chase River supportive housing project, city councillors should have taken the approach of purchasing land and holding public consultations first.
“We should have done what Parksville did. In anticipation, they got the land and communicated with the public about it and that is what we should have been doing first. We did it the other way and I think that was the problem,” he said. “I can’t blame the neighbourhood [Chase River] for thinking that we were forcing it them on with this because we didn’t do it the right way.”
Hong said he believes the city will eventually receive money from the province for a supportive housing project.
“The next step that I want to talk to council about is that we need to acquire some land,” he said.