Supportive housing project slowly earning acceptance

Nanaimo's latest supportive housing complex will officially break ground on Wednesday.

The once-controversial Uplands supportive housing project is anticipated to break ground this week without much push back .

Building operator Pacifica Housing, will officially launch construction on its 33-unit north-Nanaimo complex tomorrow.

It has been two years since the B.C. government announced the site as part of its $34 million strategy to permanently house Nanaimo’s homeless and mentally ill population. The move sparked  community-wide controversy and became a top election issue for resident groups like the Concerned Citizens of Nanaimo, which debated the merits of locating the city’s homeless in a residential neighbourhood.

Now with construction set to start, Pacifica’s executive director is sensing a cautious turnaround in the neighbourhood’s attitude. She said she has no illusions there aren’t still people opposed to the project, but said residents have shown a willingness to help make the complex successful.

The project has also won over Bill Inglis, one of of the most outspoken critics of the project and former spokesman of the Concerned Citizens —who says he’s no longer as concerned about the initiative thanks to ongoing consultation.

“[The groundbreaking] is a milestone to celebrate….there is no reason to believe it will be anything but a celebratory and positive event,” French said.

She adds that educating the community on supportive housing  will always be a work in progress. But “my experience has been that when people start to realize what it is all about and that it isn’t what they imagined that they feel more comfortable.”

According to Pacifica Housing, residents have contributed ideas to the design of the building, which will house people 45 years and older. Neighbours were also contacted about construction activity once the contract was awarded to Windley Contracting on Oct. 1.

Inglis said public engagement and French’s advocacy work has made him fully confident Pacifica Housing team will find a happy medium in making tenants comfortable while maintaining safety for the neighbourhood.

“[Karyn French] stood in front of this massive uprising as a Joan of Arc if you will and said…hear our side, we will do whatever we can to make it safe and comfortable for you— and she’s done it so far,” he said, adding French previously fought on residents’ behalf to scale back units.

While he plans to now wait and see how the project unfolds, Inglis says he has “no lingering doubts” about the project.

The supportive housing complex has been designed to fit with the neighbourhood and has incorporated lessons learned from Pacifica’s other facilities. Staff members, for example, will have clear sight lines on the ground level floors, and windows will be angled to give residents and their neighbours privacy. There will also be a bed bug sauna outside the building to help residents treat their belongings before they move into the facility. Eventually city staff members could connect residents with odd jobs around the building to help them integrate into the community.

The groundbreaking ceremony will be at the Uplands drive site, at 1 p.m. Wednesday.