Increased security appears to be coming to downtown Nanaimo.
Nanaimo councillors have agreed to spend $400,000 to hire three additional private security guards, who would be responsible for conducting night patrols throughout the city’s downtown.
The decision was made as a recommendation during Wednesday’s finance and audit committee meeting, where councillors also agreed to hire a consultant to create a public safety action plan at a tune of $50,000.
At the moment, Nanaimo has one private security guard responsible for an area downtown that includes three parking garages and other structures and the city’s security budget currently sits at roughly $240,000, with another $150,000 earmarked for security in the Old City Quarter.
Coun. Tyler Brown was the only councillor to vote against the recommendation on Wednesday, saying he would rather wait until additional information, particularly a report on emergency shelters, becomes available before making any financial decisions.
“To me, that would be responsible way,” he said.
Spending $400,000 is not going to solve the much deeper and complex issues of homelessness in the community, said Coun. Ian Thorpe, but it does help taxpayers feel a little bit safer downtown.
“I absolutely support it as a short-term measure to provide some support for those taxpayers and businesses who are trying to survive and thrive in our city,” he said.
Meanwhile, Coun. Ben Geselbracht said he not only supports the additional security but believes there is a need for it.
“Our community is facing a situation where we have individuals with mental health addiction issues and there is no proper support for them and they are in our community without the proper resources and that has huge impacts, not only on their health when there is not the proper shelter and resources available,” Geselbracht said. “But also it is quite frightening when somebody is having a psychotic episode downtown when they are walking to their car by themselves at night.”
Council’s decision to increase downtown security comes after Dave Laberge, the city’s manager of bylaw services, recommended earlier this week that councillors spend approximately $1.85 million over two years on various security initiatives aimed at cleaning up and making downtown streets safer, including spending $400,000 on more security guards.
LaBerge said that having one for the entire city simply isn’t good enough.
“It isn’t realistic that a single patroller can effectively patrol three city parkades with 901 parking spaces and other downtown infrastructure alone,” he said. “We don’t put our bylaw officers or police officers out alone during the day and I just don’t see going forward, how this is fair or sustainable to our security contractors.”
Security guards needed downtown
Kevan Shaw, president of the Victoria Cresent Association, welcomes the move towards adding more security downtown. He said there has been an increase in graffiti and vandalism as more and more homeless people move into the downtown area, forcing his organization to take action.
“What we had to do was hire security because we had the street disorder going on in doorways and alcoves of businesses,” he said.
Jerry Hong, owner of the Queen’s pub and live music venue in downtown Nanaimo, said he has had to close because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions and believes extra security downtown is needed.
“I think it’s fair. I think it’s great because the Old City Quarter got their funding and if it’s worked well for them then it should spread that program through the rest of downtown has the same benefits,” said Hong, who is also a former city councillor.
Mayor Leonard Krog said city council has heard from the businesses time and time again that want increased security downtown.
“There are people living in hell on our streets and they’re making hell for others to some extent,” he said. “It is why we as council are so anxious to see the province as it is not just on housing and supportive housing but also looking at facilities with complex care.”
But while business owners are pleased, homeless advocate says spending more money on security is the wrong way to go
“Allocating this money is really just dealing with the tip of the iceberg. You know we’re not dealing with the underlying problem that is housing that is supported,” said Ajay Booth.
Adam Morley, who has been living on the streets for years, agrees.
“That is like treating a symptom of a problem that’s a much greater issue and it’s probably something that we need to have a lot more input on than a short interview but there’s definitely places we could put that money that would have more effect,” he said.
City staff propose millions on increased downtown security next year
Beyond 2021, LaBerge has also recommended city council commit at least $1.45 million from the 2022 budget towards “expanded” security commitments, a permanent sanitation team, creating a downtown security plan, upgrading security cameras, forming a graffiti response team, and continued funding of washroom facilities.
LaBerge said earlier this week that a permanent sanitation team — which would cost $400,000 — responsible for cleaning downtown overnight would do more than just keep the streets clear of garbage and filth.
“This would reduce daytime interruptions to pedestrians and traffic and overnight accumulations of liter and this would provide a layer of capable guardians for spaces that are otherwise quiet during night hours,” he told councillors on Monday.
Nanaimo’s downtown has struggled with a growing population of informal settlers and homeless individuals in recent years.
In 2018, the city successfully removed a large informal settlement dubbed “Discontent City” from a vacant property on Port Drive, and fire at an encampment on Wesley Street last year resulted in the displacement of roughly 60 people, many of whom ended up sheltering outside in other various spaces throughout downtown.
LaBerge said the increased numbers of homeless people sheltering in the doorways of closed businesses, parking garages, and other spaces creates “certain” risks.
“When this is unchecked and unmanaged, these situations can proliferate and even entrench and that increases the potential for conflict with people that have businesses and live in the area,” he said. “When there is an entrenchment of a large number of individuals the signs of stress can become much more evident and the number of public complaints … about matters such as public disorder, open drug use, accumulations of garbage, waste and drug use.”