Police, city officials and politicians got an earful of vented frustration as well as constructive ideas from nearly 300 people who attended a meeting about homelessness, drug addiction and crime in Nanaimo.
The Citizens Want Nanaimo Back meeting packed the house in the Nanaimo Entertainment Centre on Tuesday as people aired, at times forcefully and emotionally, their concerns and personal experiences over perceived police response to complaints of drug abuse in the streets, disturbances, break-ins and theft from private residences and businesses.
Dave LaBerge, Nanaimo bylaw services manager and former RCMP officer, explained that Nanaimo is experiencing unprecedented homeless numbers – from an estimated 150 people in 2002 to roughly 600 people currently – that took a sudden jump in 2018 when Nanaimo’s tent city formed, combined with the opioid crisis, which is taxing emergency services and city resources on all levels.
Numerous complaints focused on supportive housing at Labieux Road and Terminal Avenue, set up by B.C. Housing, which did not have a representative at the meeting, and its perceived level of criminal and drug activity and lack of supportive mental health and addiction services.
Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson responded to comments about Nanaimo’s supportive housing by saying crime decreased in other communities with supportive housing, but those have addiction and mental health support services, which Malcolmson said the province is working on providing.
“That didn’t happen in Nanaimo, which is why it’s not a good model for anywhere else,” Malcolmson said. “But in all those places, when you get people off the street and under a roof and you get the addiction and mental health supports that they need, crime does drop … it didn’t happen here, though … again because this was emergency housing and didn’t have the wraparound services. I hear you and I agree that these moved the tent city crime problem into other neighbourhoods without having the resources built around them that we needed and I’m sorry that that happened. I don’t know what else could have been done in the moment.”
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Common sentiments and suggestions for moving forward included building addiction treatment facilities, creating drug-free supportive housing for addicts who want to get clean, nightly curfew times at the housing sites and strict prohibition of stolen goods at the sites with security checks and consequences.
But those changes would have to be approved and implemented by government.
“I want to know what you’re doing for mental health. I want to know if you can or if laws need to be changed where there is mental health facilities because a lot of people on the street, they are preyed upon, so, I want a mental health component – I want institutions reopened. Build new ones. You’re the government,” said Kevan Shaw, president of the Victoria Crescent Association, forcefully addressing Malcolmson and Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Paul Manly. “You’re the parents. Look after those on the street. Help them first. Help the mentally ill. Help the drug-addicted … you have to help them or they’re dying on our streets and … criminals? They get thrown in jail. Simple.”
Shaw recommended getting judges and prosecutors who will deliver stiff sentences for crimes.
“Speak out,” he said, addressing the crowd. “You should not be the silent majority anymore. We’re victims too.”
Chrissy Forsythe, a Wesley Street business owner who helped organize the meeting, said she thought the meeting got a “little heated at times” and went well with some good suggestions offered, but it will be up to the province to follow through.
“Everything lies in the hands of the province at this point because the province is the one responsible for putting this under a medical issue … I think the province needs to step up and do what they want to do because when you implement a mental health and addiction act and have to have services for that policy, this is what we’re stuck with,” Forsythe said.
Const. Gary O’Brien, Nanaimo RCMP spokesman, addressed the policing side of some of the problems Nanaimo is dealing with at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I think it gave people a voice and we heard very clearly that people are very upset and they’re looking for solutions and they recognize that there’s no quick fix to this,” O’Brien said. “We’re all in it together.”
O’Brien said he and Malcolmson discussed the idea of future town hall meetings to hear concerns and perspectives of other Nanaimo neighbourhoods.