Number of homeless growing in Nanaimo as services shrink


Nanaimo social-service agencies and governments are going flat-out to arrange for extra services and beds as homeless numbers jump by more than 25 per cent.

The goal is to stave off the COVID-19 virus in that population, which is extra vulnerable because many homeless people have pre-existing medical conditions, says Signy Madden, executive director of the United Way Central and Northern Vancouver Island.

Madden — who is not aware of any member of the homeless community diagnosed with the virus so far — is hoping new services will be announced soon as various bodies work together to map out strategies.

The federal government has provided $400,000 through the United Way for Nanaimo and $200,000 for the Duncan area to help cope with the crisis, she said.

Though homeless numbers are rising, services have shrunk as providers adhere to self-isolating and physical-distancing measures. Agencies have closed or decreased food services.

A March survey of Nanaimo residents without a place to live found 425 people, up 27 per cent from the previous survey in 2018, when 335 people were counted. In 2016, the count found 174 people without shelter.

Despite best efforts, not everyone is counted in such surveys — Madden estimates the actual number is closer to 550 to 600.

Nanaimo has had high homeless numbers in recent years. It was home to the largest tent city in B.C. in 2018, when more than 300 people set up camp on a municipal industrial site. The tent city was eventually dismantled and about 170 modular supportive-housing units were opened to house many of its residents.

Since then, more people have moved onto the street, Madden said. Along with those who are chronically homeless and have mental-health issues, there are people who might be working one or more jobs but cannot afford rising rental rates in the city and are forced to sleep outdoors.

As a result of virus-related restrictions, up to half the community’s shelter beds have closed, Madden said.

Staffing at shelters is also a concern because employees can no longer work in more than one facility, due to new safety protocols to avoid spreading the virus.

Nanaimo social agencies are worried that homeless numbers will rise even more because of layoffs and other economic impacts of the pandemic.

The City of Nanaimo and its Health and Housing Task Force, Island Health, B.C. Housing, service organizations and the federal government have all pitched in to try to respond quickly.

Nanaimo’s council recently announced it is working with Island Health and B.C. Housing to help plan for accommodations for homeless residents who might need to be isolated because of the virus.

Its task force has been working with other bodies to develop strategies to respond to the crisis, including finding ways to get consistent meals to people in need.

The city is also providing extra washroom, hand-sanitizing and potable-water facilities downtown for homeless residents.

Madden said access to water, food and additional showers facilities is needed.