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Story of the year: Discontent City

Homeless camp brought a range of issues to the forefront in Nanaimo during 2018
Discontent City is the News Bulletin’s story of the year for 2018. NEWS BULLETIN file photo

Tent city brought issues top-of-mind

Tent city, the people inside those tents and how they got there, the impacts on the surrounding community, and what could be done – all of that, together, made Discontent City the story of the year in Nanaimo.

Issues of homelessness, affordable housing, poverty, mental health and addictions, social spending, crime, and more, could all be found in and around the tents that were pitched between mid-May and early December at 1 Port Drive.

Nanaimo News Bulletin staff, as we discussed story of the year topics, decided to spread our year-in-review coverage over two editions again this year. In today’s issue, we’ll look at Discontent City through a few different lenses; next issue, we’ll round up some of the runner-up stories that made their share of headlines, too.

Here’s what made Discontent City the story of the year in 2018:

Chase River rejects housing

The two tent cities that sprang up in Nanaimo in 2018 highlighted the homelessness issue and their genesis can be traced back to failed supportive housing at Chase River.

In late January, the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing revealed a plan, in conjunction with the City of Nanaimo, for supportive housing in the Cranberry Avenue area, to be operated by Pacifica Housing. The 44 modular units would each have a kitchen and bathroom, with a meal program and common areas also accessible to residents.

The province was to invest $7.25 million in the project, with the objective to aid people experiencing homelessness in transitioning to more permanent housing. Then-mayor Bill McKay stated the city welcomed the opportunity to work with the province to create affordable housing options, but ground was never broken.

Area residents were vehemently opposed to the project, as the city and Pacifica would soon find out later in the month, when residents packed the Boys and Girls Club at Chase River for an emotionally-charged open house.

Child-care providers said they were concerned the housing project would lead to needles, condoms and garbage and could lead to someone overdosing in vicinity of a daycare.

Residents expressed concern about the safety of their children.

Officials from Pacifica said its operations are successful and thought the housing could work in the area.

Nanaimo city council voted 7-2 at a council meeting in February to drop out of the project, with former councillors Diane Brennan and Gord Fuller opposing the motion.

Tents set up at city hall

On the morning of March 12, about a dozen people experiencing homelessness and their supporters set up an encampment on the lawn of Nanaimo City Hall.

The move came in response to the decision by council on Feb. 19 to reject $7.25 million in provincial funding to construct low-barrier housing in Chase River.

The protest was organized locally with help from the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users, a peer-run advocacy and education organization from Victoria. The protestors were asking the city for movement on the supportive housing file, a permanent supervised consumption site and a drop-in centre.

During the city’s finance and audit committee meeting on March 14, councillors unanimously approved spending $350,465 on numerous staff recommendations relating to the issues to homelessness. These included funding for a daytime drop-in resource centre, a shower facility program for homeless people, three portable toilets to be used downtown, support for its ‘housing first’ initiative, extending hours for the city’s downtown daytime security services and urban cleanup initiative.

Councillors also agreed to support the city’s cold weather homeless shelter at the First Unitarian Fellowship and have staff prepare a letter to the provincial government requesting additional funding. They also agreed to purchase more needle disposal boxes and garbage cans.

City council approved the funding at its meeting on March 19. By that date organizers estimated that 40 people were living in the camp.

On March 20 the City of Nanaimo issued en eviction notice to dozens of campers giving them until 2 p.m. the next day to vacate the lawn adding that any who remained would be “relocated” by Nanaimo RCMP and bylaw officers. By the afternoon of March 21 the campers had dispersed.

Discontent City tents pitched

Nanaimo’s summer of discontent began May 17 when local homeless advocates, supported by the Alliance Against Displacement, broke through locked gates at 1 Port Drive, an empty industrial lot in downtown Nanaimo.

Dozens of people, some from tent cities on the Lower Mainland, claimed spaces on the lot and set up camp, establishing Discontent City, a homeless camp that would swell to a population of about 300 people in the following months.

The basis for the action and the name of the camp was “false promises from B.C. Housing” according to a declaration read at the site by Mercedes Courtoreille, an advocate who had camped at a tent city at city hall earlier in the year.

“We are taking unused city-owned property to protect ourselves against the hostility of the government and property owners because we experience safety in numbers, and to improve our lives and better contribute to the community that we love,” said Courtoreille.

Police took no direct action as the protesters broke into the property and set up camp.

“It was city property and ultimately the responsibility of the city, but we were there to ensure the safety of, not only the residents, but the people in the surrounding area,” said Const. Gary O’Brien, Nanaimo RCMP spokesman. “We worked very closely with the city, looking at what enforcement we would take, if any, or were we going to simply moderate it to see where it goes? We knew a heavy-handed approach would not work. There would be push back and the optics would not look good as well and nobody wanted it to get to that situation.”

Former Nanaimo mayor Bill McKay said the site was “a good option.”

“Our concern is they’re safe there now and as opposed to having them back at city hall or in one of our parks, for example,” McKay said.

The camp declaration also called for provision of drinking water, garbage collection and washroom facilities, which the city provided until the camp was closed in December.

Court decides camp’s fate

Discontent City’s eventual closure didn’t come without months of legal wrangling and waiting.

On June 12, nearly one month after Discontent City formed, the City of Nanaimo announced its intentions to evict the people living at the homeless camp through the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The city hired Victoria-based lawyer, Troy DeSouza of Dominion GovLaw.

Nine days later, the City of Nanaimo officially filed a petition requesting a statutory injunction with the Supreme Court, calling for the removal and destruction of Discontent City, arguing that it was illegal and causing a wave of crime in the surrounding area. Courtoreille, Gina Watson, Mike Pindar, Mystie Wintoneak, Kent Sexton, Dean Kory and “unknown persons” were named as respondents.

In late June, it was announced that the a two-day injunction hearing had been scheduled. Discontent City’s population had grown to more than 200 people by this point.

A few days before the statutory injunction hearing, Noah Ross, attorney representing those named in the city’s petition against Discontent City, filed a response to the city’s claim.

In it, he argued that the camp created a sense of community for those who lived there and was good for the city. His response included 62 affidavits.

The two-day statutory injunction hearing took place July 16-17 at the Nanaimo courthouse. Day one of the hearing saw lawyers from both sides lay out their arguments. DeSouza argued that many of the people living at Discontent City weren’t even homeless and that there were youths at the camp that were taking intravenous drugs and prostituting themselves. He also argued that Discontent City created countless health, safety, fire and legal issues and crime in the surrounding area, describing the camp as a “vortex of disruption and criminal activity.”

Ross argued that Discontent City was doing more good for the community than harm, pointing toward numerous affidavits from people who felt the camp was a better place for them than being on the streets. Ross also argued that the city hadn’t done enough for homeless people in the city and that there weren’t enough shelter spaces for homeless people.

Although the two-day hearing would conclude with lawyers on both sides feeling optimistic, it would not be the last time DeSouza and his team would face off against Ross in court regarding Discontent City.

A few weeks later, DeSouza filed an application in the Supreme Court of British Columbia in an effort to enforce conditions set out in a fire safety order that had been issued by Justice Skrolrood on behalf of the province against the occupants at Discontent City on July 18.

On Aug. 13, Skolrood ruled against the city and declined to issue an enforcement order. He said an order authorizing the arrest of an individual for simply refusing to take down a tarp or for setting up a tent too close to another tent is “excessive.”

“The order sought takes on its face an attempt to in effect dismantle the tent city while its legal status remains undecided. In this sense, the application for a police enforcement clause is, in my view, premature,” said Skolrood.

Then on Sept. 21, months after the two-day hearing took place, Justice Skolrood ruled that Discontent City had to close Oct. 12. In his ruling, he cited ongoing safety issues, a lack of leadership within tent city and significant criminal activity in the neighbouring areas as three “key” factors that led to his decision.

Discontent City would remain open beyond the Oct. 12 deadline after Justice Skolrood granted an application for an extension before any enforcement of an injunction against Discontent City, which gave residents until Nov. 30 to vacate the property.

The Port Drive tent city officially closed in early December.

Homeless camp sees confrontation

On Aug. 5, Soldiers of Odin Vancouver Island and a group called Action Against Discontent City held a protest march in opposition to the homeless camp.

Soldiers of Odin is an anti-immigrant group founded by a Finnish neo-Nazi with chapters around the world, but the president of the Island affiliate disputed ties to neo-Nazisim.

“We have members of all creeds and religious backgrounds … I defy anyone to produce evidence of my club being anything other than Canadian patriots,” SOVI president Conrad Peach said.

The announcement of the rally drew a counter-protest from supporters of Discontent City and the group Alliance Against Displacement, as well as a plentiful police presence. The day of the march, the two sides came face-to-face at Discontent City. Despite profanity and hostility, there were a few brief moments where some members on both sides engaged in a civil manner and listened to one another.

On Aug. 17, the Soldiers of Odin announced it would hold another rally at Discontent City on Aug. 19, once again prompting a counter-protest and RCMP attention, but this time SOVI was a no-show, with Peach explaining via social media, “You’ve been trolled.”

Police, firefighters busy at camp

As Discontent City swelled, so did reports of crime, fires and disturbances in and around the homeless encampment.

Nanaimo Fire Rescue, RCMP and B.C. Ambulance personnel responded to multiple disturbances and drug overdoses.

In July an 18-year-old was arrested for aggravated assault after a man sustained a life-threatening stab wound. Another stabbing was reported in August.

Fires inside tents were a constant concern as campers reportedly used open flame inside tents for cooking and warmth, prompting fire safety orders to be issued by the Supreme Court of B.C., that decreed tents kept one metre apart and prohibited open flame inside tents. Nevertheless, one man suffered burns from fireworks reportedly ignited inside a tent. A woman suffered burns and her tent and belongings were lost when she lit a pipe and caught her bedding on fire.

In one case explosive materials were dumped inside a sharps container.

According to Nanaimo Fire Rescue, firefighters responded 98 times to the camp, which included four calls for assistance, 14 burning complaints, 13 fires, one for hazardous materials and 66 medical aids.

“Twelve of the fires required investigations and reports to the [B.C.] Fire Commissioners Office,” said Karen Fry, Nanaimo Fire Rescue chief and city director of public safety, in an e-mail in to the News Bulletin. “Two injuries were related to the fires.”

Medical responses were overdose related, Fry said.

There were also reports of rocks and bottles being thrown at tent city residents from outside the camp and one incident of rocks thrown at members of the news media by a tent city resident who was arrested by police.

There were numerous reports of property thefts and anecdotal stories of extensive shoplifting from downtown merchants, but representatives from major retailers didn’t wish to comment on the record.

“We had increased calls for service, not only in 1 Port Place or Discontent City, but in the downtown core, but that was also a reflection of the fact that many of the homeless people who were scattered throughout the city were now congregated in the downtown core,” said Const. Gary O’Brien, Nanaimo RCMP spokesman. “The members didn’t see an increase in calls for service. It was just that calls were being focused in the downtown core.”

Police noted an increase in shoplifting complaints, but many, O’Brien said, were not reported and so were not recorded in police crime statistics. Police did see a rise in incidents of violence, especially during the hot dry summer months.

“We fully expect that,” O’Brien said. “There’s often disturbances, assaults, sometimes possession of a weapon, and we fully expected that whenever you put people, who are generally living on their own, independently, and then they’re basically forced into an area, there’s going to be disputes … we attended to most. There were some charges that resulted, but many of them were dealt with informally as well.”

Squatters claim schoolhouse

Activists seized an empty school in the city’s north end and tried to make it their home.

On Oct. 5, activists from Alliance Against Displacement, the group who helped establish Discontent City, broke into Rutherford Elementary School and attempted to make it their home as part of a campaign they called Schoolhouse Squat.

“We have claimed this building as a safe spot for homeless people. For five months, Discontent City has been home for the homeless [to] camp. We were unhoused, but we made a home. The government and courts are trying to make us homeless again and we will not go along with it,” Amber McGrath, Discontent City supporter and organizer said at the time.

Earlier that day, the provincial government had announced intentions to build temporary supportive housing on Labieux Road and Terminal Avenue, in an effort to get Discontent City residents into housing and off the street.

Alliance Against Displacement activists, however, called the government’s measures weak, citing concerns about the lack of consultation with Discontent City residents.

Residents expressed concerns for the safety and questioned why the police weren’t removing them from the school immediately. Later that evening, more than 100 people showed up out front of the school and voiced their concerns about the group’s presence within the school.

On Oct. 6, RCMP officers, which included special tactical teams, removed the squatters from the school and arrested 27 for break-and-enter and mischief.

Supportive housing opened

A court decision, government action, community partnerships, activism, need and the approaching winter combined to bring about the end of Discontent City.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in September that tent city had to go, but that meant hundreds, already without a home, would be further displaced.

In October, the provincial government announced it had purchased land at 250 Terminal Ave., near Townsite Road, for $2 million in order to build 80 units of temporary “workforce” modular housing, and that it would also build 90 units of temporary housing on city-owned land at 2020 Labieux Rd. The cost to supply and install the modular housing at both locations was to be approximately $1.6 million.

Selina Robinson, B.C. minister of municipal affairs and housing, told the News Bulletin the decision to provide 170 units of temporary housing was in response to the ongoing homelessness situation in Nanaimo and the impending closure of Discontent City.

Various governments and agencies partnered, with Island Crisis Care Society announced as the operator of the Terminal site and Pacifica Housing running the Labieux site. Petitions were started opposing both locations, and small-group public consultation took place in unadvertised locations. Service providers said it’s in Nanaimo’s best interests that the two new supportive housing projects succeed. Violet Hayes, executive director of Island Crisis Care, said temporary supportive housing is not the whole solution, but it is a good start.

“We have this wonderful opportunity to be successful in changing lives,” she said. “I know some people have some really strong opinions that what we’re doing is not right, that we’re condoning … and I just want to say that we have the best interest of the people that we’re serving and we really want to see them succeed, so that’s why we’re doing what we do and I hope we’ll have a lot of community support to do that.”

The units were fast-tracked to open in time for a Nov. 30 closure of Discontent City and just barely made that timeline, with a handful of people moving into the Labieux site on that date, and both locations mostly filling up in the ensuing week and a half, with 155 housed.

On Dec. 10, Discontent City was demolished. Backhoes, city workers and police moved in to disassemble and clean up what was left.

Alliance Against Displacement activists weren’t claiming victory after supportive housing opened and tent city closed.

Laura Rose, member of Alliance Against Displacement, told reporters that the eviction of people from Discontent City was an act of repression against homeless people.

“It is institutional and it will take away our rights and we will have cops and social workers regulating us all the time,” she said.

Kevin Gartner, one of the residents provided with housing, was happy with the way the province and city handled Discontent City.

“This sets some sort of precedent for the homeless, I think, so we should see some good things right across Canada, right?” he said.

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