Nanaimo homelessness jumps by 25%, concerns over risk of COVID-19 increase

WatchNanaimo is dealing with huge growth in its homeless population in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest count puts the number of homeless in that city up to 425 people. As Skye Ryan reports, the city's mayor is calling for help. 

Homelessness in Nanaimo has increased by more than 25 percent in the past two years, raising concerns about COVID-19 in the vulnerable population.

Nanaimo took part in the 2020 National Point-in-Time Homeless Count before the pandemic safety guidelines, unlike 60 other Canadian communities that are now unable to participate due to isolation and physical distancing rules.

“The initial data from the March 12 Point-in-Time Count suggests that homelessness is at its highest, with at least 425 people living unsheltered in Nanaimo,” said the city in a release on Wednesday.

This is up from 335 in 2018, which doubled from 2016’s count at 174.

“These increased numbers highlight the need for further investments and resources in our community, especially during an outbreak,” said Nanaimo.

Self-isolation and proper hygiene is difficult for the homeless populations. Shelters have had to reduce capacity to ensure physical distance, and food services across the region have shut down or reduced services to allow for extra precautions to help stop the spread of the virus.

One member of the population, Jennifer McMillan, packs up every morning and moves her homeless camp from a downtown Nanaimo street when roused by City of Nanaimo bylaw officers enforcing laws.

She has nowhere to go. So once officers drive on to the next camp she pushes everything right back to the site that she’s found is the safest for her.

“I’m exhausted,” said McMillan.

“I pack everything up and I push it down here and then I push it back,” she said.

“You know the higher levels of government have suggested we have at least several weeks or a month of supplies on hand with this COVID.”

The homeless Nanaimo resident has a stockpile on wheels. Without anywhere to use toilet facilities or wash hands, she’s sharing her rubbing alcohol that people pour over their dirty hands in the pandemic.

While the housed community around the homeless keep to social distancing, homeless told CHEK News that they’re still in basic survival mode.

“It’s pretty sketchy,” said McMillan.

“We’ll see what happens,” she said.

“It’s hard out here for a lot of us,” said homeless Nanaimo resident Andre Laflamme.

“I’ve been out here for three-and-a-half years and this is the hardest year.”

Some service providers are struggling with staffing due to self-isolation, and various workers can now only work at one location. The providers are also concerned that more people will slip into homelessness because of layoffs and other economic stresses due to the pandemic.

“The negative economic impacts of COVID-19 on those who are already on the edge of homelessness will push more vulnerable people out of their homes,” says Jason Harrison, co-chair of the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition.

“First we had the affordable housing crisis where many employed people had trouble finding any accommodation or that which they could afford.  Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a great need to coordinate our response to create affordable housing and resources for others who may face homelessness for the first time.”

The City of Nanaimo’s Council-led Health & Housing Task Force reconvened this week after all City meetings were suspended due to the pandemic. The Task Force, BC Housing, Island Health, United Way and the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition are working to create solutions that will help vulnerable populations during the pandemic and longer-term solutions for people experiencing homelessness in the region.

“It’s going to take a concerted effort from all levels of government and the support of our neighbourhoods to solve this issue,” says Yvonne Borrows, co-chair of the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition. “For us, the growing number of people experiencing homelessness just cements the fact that service providers are maxed out and more support is urgently needed.”

Nanaimo’s mayor is urging provincial officials to act on this escalating homelessness crisis.

“Quite simply the people on the streets of Nanaimo are living in hell,” said Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog.

“And unfortunately in many cases, they’re making it hell for the lives of people around them,” he said.

Krog is urging the province to launch pilot programs in Nanaimo that could help make streets safer, including institutionalizing the mentally ill and severely drug-addicted who are a danger to themselves and others.

An updated status of service being offered by members of the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition can be found online.

Details about the data gathered during the 2020 Point-in-Time Count will be released in a presentation to Nanaimo City Council in May.

Rebecca LawrenceRebecca Lawrence

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