Whether you support or oppose the temporary housing locations, you’re right

It’s of no surprise that the issues around the temporary housing locations along with our significant homelessness issue are causing some serious problems throughout the community. Crime has been increasing throughout Nanaimo for quite some time. Without a doubt there is a concentrated increase in reported incidents in the neighbourhoods surrounding the temporary locations, however it would be false logic to attribute the establishment of the temporary locations as being the sole reason – correlation does not equal causation.

This isn’t a simple cause and effect type of situation, nor is it black and white – it’s a very complex subject. Prior to the establishment of these temporary locations, there were over 400 homeless individuals. That number has been essentially halved now, and whether they are there or dispersed throughout the city – the problems do not go away, nor are they responsible for them all.

You will find four specific action steps to take that I propose below. They are not all-encompassing, nor will they they fix everything – and they’re not intended to – they’re intended to spur action and shift things towards productive conversation. You can get right to the four specific action steps by clicking here if you wish, but there’s some other things before that to consider as well – so I hope you will just continue on reading.

I first want to acknowledge just a few points that have been raised by those who are in support of the temporary housing as well those who are in opposition of it – because whether you’re in support or opposition of the temporary housing locations, there are a lot of valid points being made from many different perspectives.

Note that I’m only touching upon a few of them – and that is because this post is intended to be more about working on action steps than it is about providing validation to the varied perspectives and the reasoning that goes along with those perspectives.

Those who are in opposition of the temporary housing are right

Crime and disruption around the locations has increased. It is clearly indicated by the stats (which still do not show a complete picture since only some people call in the incidents) that this claim is true and indisputable. To be clear, the crime stats are not showing that the temporary housing locations are the sole source, but the stats are definitely showing that there is a concentration of issues around the temporary housing locations and that overall crime is continuing to increase throughout Nanaimo.

There is increased homeless activity. The increased homeless activity is both a result of the remaining homeless issue not being sufficiently addressed as well as the immediate increase of homeless individuals that have resulted from being dispersed into the streets, alleys, bushes, and parks now that tent city has been closed. Those who weren’t housed by the temporary housing remain homeless. The amount of homeless individuals prior to the temporary housing (and tent city) being established was studied and estimated by the RCMP to exceed 400. With only 170 individuals being housed in the temporary housing locations, that means that well over 200 remain on the streets and in the alleyways and parks every day and continues to be a significant issue.

The neighbourhoods need help badly. The surrounding residents and businesses have been discussing the problems and how it is affecting them, reporting the issues, bringing the issues to leadership. Yet, it doesn’t seem to be moving the dial on anything – there’s nothing for the residents to grasp onto that helps them feel like our leadership is leading the way through this, which they can and must do. As a result anger and frustration is increasing – they are very understandably feeling like they are being left on their own to deal with this problem that they did not cause. Without a doubt, other levels of government are responsible for various aspects, however, it is our Council that needs to hold the other levels of government responsible and advocate for increased resources and supports on the city’s behalf.

Those who are in support of the temporary housing are right

Housing is an important first step. It’s a very good thing that the Province has stepped up and provided temporary housing for 170 homeless individuals – it was a necessary first step, and one that was well overdue that resulted from an overabundance of inaction. Without that temporary housing we would still have 170 additional homeless individuals on top of the over 200+ other homeless individuals that are still roaming the streets, sleeping in alleyways and parks. It’s true that incidents of crime would still be at the high level that they’re at, though possibly more dispersed throughout the city. That doesn’t make things better, and the steps towards making more housing available must continue as a high priority.

The problem existed long before the temporary housing was established. It’s important to recognize the estimated number of over 400 homeless individuals that existed prior to the temporary housing – and prior to tent city as well I might add. While there are definitely some issues arising from the temporary housing locations that contain 170 previously homeless individuals, the fact is that the temporary housing locations aren’t to blame for all of the issues we are currently facing in regards to increased crime and disruption throughout the surrounding communities – let alone the broad community of Nanaimo itself.

We need to support continued progress on this issue. Nobody claimed this was going to fix everything; it’s just a start. With that in mind, I would suggest that it’s counter productive for those in the community who choose to continue down the road of blaming the temporary housing locations and the homeless for everything. Not everyone is, but many are. This situation is aggravated even further by those who are, and continue to, spread misinformation and hate. We need to continue making forward progress, and to drastically increase the amount of mental health and addiction supports available along with more housing. It isn’t going to be easy but we need to persist, for the benefit of all residents in our community. There is no turning back, that will only make things worse.

Some common ground may exist

At the core of those who support or oppose the temporary housing, I believe most rational people recognize to some extent that in order to tackle this overall issue effectively, we need to have sufficient supports available which address mental health and addiction issues. The supports required to address mental health and addiction issues are insufficient unless you have the means to pay for them out of pocket.

Complicating this, is that due to the nature of mental health and addiction, many of the supports require immediate access. The problem is further compounded as it could be argued that some of the most important mental health and addiction supports are the ones that handle immediate crisis situations and the entry point to taking steps forward that can lead to long term success. These kinds of services fail when there is long wait lists and insufficient access to the resources needed, and that inevitably results in a huge amount of first responder resources continuing to be applied towards isolated incidents which often repeat themselves.

The bottom line is that in order to address things properly and achieve success beyond simply getting people housed, a significant amount of mental health supports and addiction treatment programs are needed to address the specialized focuses detox, sobering and assessment, stabilization, and supportive recovery services.

And to get all that, we need to work together – these type of supports and programs require involvement from multiple levels of government, our leadership needs to be proactive and take action, and we need to provide our support.

Even if you are not on board with this, I hope that you can at least recognize the negative financial implications of doing nothing or going backwards – it’s already been well proven throughout the world that addressing the issue, is by far the less costly way to proceed forth. The longer that we spin our wheels on this without moving forward with more positive steps, the more it will continue to cost the taxpayers.

Communication is key

Before we get to the four action steps, I think this is important to point out because “What is our Council actually doing about this issue anyways?” is a question I’m frequently hearing, and I would agree that nobody really knows – nobody in the general community that is. I say this not to condemn Council or suggest that they aren’t doing anything, but to actually start driving home the importance of communication which is sorely lacking on this subject.

Resentment and stigma against the homeless and temporary housing locations continues to increase as leadership remains relatively quiet while incidents continue to escalate. This silence from leadership is counter-productive and harmful, as it leads the surrounding neighbours and businesses to start believing that they are “on their own”, and also harms the efforts of both the care providers that are “in the trenches” each and every day with those who need help, as well as those who are actually making positive steps forward.

The feeling of helplessness and perception of inaction has compounded itself to the point that some have even shifted their views on this issue from previously being in support of helping the less fortunate, to now being in opposition.

Things are getting so bad this way, that with all of the growing frustration and minimal communication by leadership, the issue is increasingly reaching levels of vigilantism. Anger and frustration will only continue to escalate if leadership does not begin communicating on this issue properly.

It’s very important that Council begins to lead on this matter publicly. Even though it inevitably means that some people will not be pleased with what’s being said, it’s not about saying things that will please everyone. It’s about keeping everyone in the community more informed about what is happening and what isn’t, actions being taken, and being upfront in showing that citizen’s concerns are not being ignored or dismissed.

Moving forward, here are four action steps that I have came up with to begin addressing the current situation and beyond.

Actions for Council to consider

Action Item 1 – Commit to being more transparent and increasing communication on this matter

I’ve discussed it to an extent above, but I want to add to it here because there are specific actions that can be taken towards this. It’s critical that Council significantly increases communication to the public on this matter – the longer this lack of communication occurs, the further the community will divide and the worse off it will be.

I would suggest that a good action step for Council towards this, would be to rise and report each and every time Council meets in-camera about the subject, and after public meetings as well where this issue is discussed. Speak about this frequently, as a Council – and as individual members of Council as well. Engage the community!

Create frequent information releases – begin putting out information about what action steps have/haven’t occurred, what is happening and what isn’t, and what the next steps are. Embrace the difficult conversations rather than avoid them. Keep the public informed – it helps – if the information releases are genuine and discuss both the successes and failures – the difficulties and hurdles, and the progress being made (or lack of).

This needs to be done frequently, until the situation is completely under control – which will obviously take some time, as there is no short term solution that will fix it all.

Another part of this step is in regards to being open, transparent, and accountable. I believe that almost all of the requests to specific entities such as BC Housing and our Provincial Government that Council directs of staff, should be done publicly through Council directives – and there’s good reasons for that. One reason, is that too much is being done in-camera which quite simply doesn’t need to be, and that circumvents accountability. I’m not saying that some of the conversations don’t need to happen behind closed doors – because sometimes they do. What I am saying, is that there is a large amount of communication and directives that should be public. Council needs to take responsibility for that.

There are also political advantages in keeping directives public as it shows that the situation is top of mind and being actively worked on. It helps show where progress is being made, and at times also shows where the ball is being dropped. This results in a natural effect of applying appropriate political pressure when it’s done correctly, and also helps inform and shape public opinion. There is no benefit to our city in keeping everything behind closed doors to the extent that it has been, rather, I am suggesting that it is entirely at the city’s expense by doing that because it creates obscurity towards responsibilities and accountability. Who is actually being protected by keeping everything behind closed doors? Just something to think about.

Rather than further describe what I mean by political pressure, responsibility, accountability, and all the intricacies involved I’m going to move onto providing some concrete examples of actions in the form of directives which can start to address parts of the problem.

And as I think you will see, they are not punitive or condemning in nature which at this point would be counter productive – they are progressive and solution oriented, and accountability is naturally embedded in an appropriate way (in my opinion). Council can do this.

Action Item 2 – Further collaboration towards addressing the concentrated issues surrounding the temporary locations

The intent of this action item is to further collaboration in addressing the concentrated issues that are threatening the health, safety, and well-being of the neighbourhoods surrounding the temporary housing locations. It’s also worth noting that some of these items might already be in progress, however without sufficient communication around that how are we to know? A Council motion to begin addressing these concentrated issues could be drafted as follows:

That Council directs Staff to:

  1. Request the RCMP to increase enforcement in the neighbourhoods surrounding 250 Terminal Avenue and 2020 Labieux Road; and,
  2. Request the RCMP to undertake a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) review of the neighbourhoods surrounding 250 Terminal Avenue and 2020 Labieux Road, and provide recommendations for consideration; and,
  3. Request a collaborative meeting to occur between city Staff, Island Crisis Care Society, Pacifica Housing Advisory Association, BC Housing, location security providers, and Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to identify and discuss potential improvements to the housing and services being provided for 250 Terminal Avenue and 2020 Labieux Road locations. Items for Staff to bring forward towards the discussion are to include the following:
    1. Discussion towards potentially improving the operational agreements in ways which further define the roles and responsibilities of each entity. If during discussion it is determined that the outcomes of an improved operational agreement would be of benefit but may require an adjustment to contractual arrangements and/or additional resources to achieve optimum service delivery, Staff is to advocate on behalf of the City of Nanaimo and request that adjustments to the contractual arrangements and/or additional resources be explored further.
    2. Discussion towards potentially improving the individual Good Neighbour agreements in ways that can help reduce any barriers identified by city staff, housing location staff, security, and/or the RCMP from being as effective as they could be towards assisting the residents reach better outcomes, upholding the intent of the agreements, improving the health, safety, and well being of the locations and concerns of the surrounding communities.
  4. Report back to the Council at the next public Council or Committee of the Whole meeting with a status update on the above items.

After this is done, Council can provide further direction and take action based on the results.

Action Item 3 – Empower the associated committees to assist

It has been indicated that Council has not yet reinstated the committees as they are considering changes to the committee structures themselves. While that is a significant and worthwhile effort to undertake, there is no reason why the committees cannot be reinstated while that work progresses. Quite simply put – there is more value to be had by having the committees assist – even in their current form – than for them not to be.

Specifically, in regards to the subject of this post – the Public Safety Committee and the Community Planning and Development Committee are residing in a state of limbo and have been since October 2018 when their meetings were suspended. These two committees are important towards this subject and have pending work to complete, along with new work that could be undertaken if they were reestablished.

To do this, Council needs to re-establish these committees and that starts by selecting and appointing a chair to each committee, directing Staff to re-establish the committee schedules, and for the committees to continue from where they left off. Council can initiate this through motions such as the following:

That Council appoint [selected Council member] as Chair of the Public Safety Committee and appoint [alternate Council member] as the backup Chair.

That Council appoint [selected Council member] as Chair of the Community Planning and Development Committee and appoint [alternate Council member] as the backup Chair. 

That Council direct Staff to:

  1. Re-establish the Public Safety Committee and the Community Planning and Development Committee meeting schedules; and,
  2. Provide Council, the Public Safety Committee, and the Community Planning and Development Committee with the report containing options for amending the Zoning Bylaw that Staff had planned to provide to the Public Safety Committee and the Community Planning and Development Committee in October 2018 prior to the stated committees being suspended. 

Once the committees are reestablished and functioning, Staff and Council can then provide additional directives for the committees to undertake towards this subject.

Action Item 4 –  Gather information and advocate for more health and addiction supports

Request Island Health and other entities to provide an update to Council in order to inform and recommend potential ways that would assist their organization towards helping address the mental health and addictions crisis. This is a step where Council can do it’s part towards listening to and showing commitment towards taking the steps it needs to take as a Council, as well as being able to further their commitment towards helping advocate in a coordinated manner towards increasing mental health and addiction supports through increased provision of resources from various entities and provincial and federal levels of government.

It’s also a step which can help better inform the general public as to the gaps that are present and where focuses need to be applied. Detox and treatment programs, placements for detox, sobering, assessment, stabilization and supportive recovery are some of the essential supports required to make lasting progress that benefits those affected and Nanaimo as a whole. Without a sufficient amount of programs and supports, the entire community – which includes both those who have mental health and addiction problems, and those who don’t – suffers. There are many entities involved in aspects of this, hence why I suggest that this is a good place to start.

A Council motion to get this ball rolling could be drafted as follows:

That Council directs Staff to:

  1. Request Island Health to deliver an informational update to a public Council meeting at a date in the near future regarding any outstanding or newly identified recommendations which would assist Island Health towards being able to fulfill its mandate of delivering a broader range of services within the City of Nanaimo which address mental health and substance abuse issues; and,
  2. Liaison with the other various entities which directly provide mental health and/or substance abuse supports to the community, and request each entity to deliver an informational update to a public Council meeting at a date in the near future regarding the work that they do along with any recommendations which would be of assistance to them towards being able to better fulfill their delivery of services; and,
  3. Report back to the Council at the next public Council or Committee of the Whole meeting with a list of entities who have been contacted and their status of confirmation including dates that each of the confirmed entity has identified they anticipate to be ready to do so.

After this is done, Council can provide further direction and take action based on the results.

In Conclusion

We’re facing a serious problem and a very large one at that. It’s going to take time to solve. What I have suggested above are just pieces of the puzzle, and I look forward to hearing more solutions come forward by others.

The problems aren’t going to get resolved by simply complaining more to each other, nor will they be solved by keeping everything behind closed doors. They’re going to get resolved by working together towards solutions. Being open, communicating, supporting, and advocating for the overall needs of the community is what will help solve the problems, and help lessen the divide.

I’m committed to doing that and I hope you are too. What do you think of the actions above, and what else do you think could be done?

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