NANAIMO — Engagement instead of alienation is the message a group of concerned Nanaimo residents is taking into the community.
Formed in recent months throughout the Old City Quarter and area, the loose association of parents and concerned citizens are trying to change the conversation around homelessness and take more positive steps forward towards a solution.
“I definitely think there's people in the community who care,” area resident Darrell Harvey told NanaimoNewsNOW. “It's just about mobilizing those people because the voices of fear and exclusion often dominate in these discussions.”
At a community meeting Thursday night hosted by the City on the issue, Harvey told the story of how he and his wife came upon a homeless man in Pawson Park over Easter.
They found him while making sure the park was clean and ready for an Easter egg hunt for neighbourhood kids. The man was sleeping under the play equipment, head resting on a backpack with work boots and a work helmet.
“I realized I had a choice. I could ask him to leave, but then I checked myself and thought 'No, I want him to feel welcomed.' So I decided I'd ask him for help hiding the eggs and he did.”
The man stuck around, ate with members of the neighbourhood and was given some supplies.
“It was the most normal, neighbourly interaction, which seemed quite a refreshing response compared to what we've seen recently,” Harvey said.
His story was met with applause at the meeting and opened up new avenues of discussion, which focused primarily on ways to handle or contain the issue.
The City recently earmarked $350,000 for initiatives ranging from more needle disposal boxes, longer hours for downtown security and additional garbage cans.
“All of these things are not solving anything,” Harvey said. “We should never pretend those things are in anyway a solution. There's nowhere to go, there's 50 beds for 300 people, the information needs to be there that it's extremely difficult to be homeless in the City and to change the narrative.”
He advocated heavily for a proposed drop-in centre, designed to help Nanaimo's homeless get off the streets and learn the skills needed to stay off of them.
Of the recent City funding, $100,000 was set as seed money for the development.
Community and cultural planning manager Bruce Anderson confirmed the final cost of the drop-in centre would be roughly $350,000 a year and his department is currently looking at both community partners and locations to make their vision a reality.
They're also having continued, ongoing discussions with Island Health and the community about a future for a supervised consumption site.
“Everything we're doing is to both mitigate the impacts of homelessness and also address additions where we can for people on the street,” he said. “That doesn't change whether you're a new face in town or someone who's been here for a decade.”
A long-in-the-making affordable housing strategy is also coming to fruition. On April 23, the first part of the strategy will be presented to Nanaimo City Council, laying out the landscape in Nanaimo and prompting discussion.
Anderson said they hope to unveil the full strategy in late summer or early fall.
A homeless count on April 18 hopes to paint a more accurate picture of how many of those experiencing homelessness are in Nanaimo and how they came to be without a steady place to stay.
On Twitter: @spencer_sterrit
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