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This year opened with another dump of snow on Nanaimo and surrounding areas. On Jan. 5, as I slipped over mounds of ice and snow in an attempt to make medical appointments, my phone buzzed with a Facebook post alert from community organization RISEBRIDGE.
“City of Nanaimo Bylaw and RCMP (15 individuals in total), are currently stealing many tarps/tents and sleeping bags etc from the individuals whom were [sic] finding shelter and safety under the bridge and in the parkade over the past few days,” the post read, referring to the city’s decision to dismantle an encampment that housed about 30 people under the Bastion Street bridge.
As I stared at the pictures of the truck loaded with belongings, the thought of how many items were recent donations gnawed at me.
Last month, in response to the temporary closure of Society for Equity, Inclusion and Advocacy (SEIA)’s warming shelter and the growing need for day shelter spaces in Nanaimo, RISEBRIDGE opened WarmReach, a project that has garnered strong community support.
Community members supplied the organization with donations such as blankets, tarps, tents, clothing and other essential items (for example sanitizer bottles, used as a source of fire and warmth).
After the city dismantled the Bastion Street encampment, it released a statement “to clarify misinformation in the community” about the eviction, stating that those sheltering under the Bastion Street bridge were given 24 hours notice to leave and some members of the encampment were provided trash bags to help with the clean up.
“Council absolutely sympathizes with individuals experiencing homelessness in our community, especially during extreme weather events such as what we have been experiencing the past two weeks. However, we also have a duty to other City residents and business owners to ensure that our City is safe, and our public lands and facilities are accessible,” stated Mayor Leonard Krog.
The city statement cited settlements that extended through the three levels of the parkade, fires inside the parkade and stairwells and damaged parking ticket kiosks as examples of a situation that “quickly deteriorated” over the holidays.
However community groups say they were not informed of the eviction. In a statement released on Jan. 8, RISEBRIDGE said the city did not contact the outreach teams or other organizations like Community Outreach Response that could assist in coordinating support or reconnecting people with their possessions.
“At eight o’clock in the morning when most of our community members were accessing the showers or Salvation Army New Hope for breakfast and we were closing up the warming centre, bylaw and RCMP showed up without much notice and unfortunately took many of those items away,” RISEBRIDGE’s Johnson told CHEK news in an interview after the incident.
As many advocates have pointed out both in Nanaimo and elsewhere, resource centres for unhoused citizens don’t always have the space to accommodate belongings when clients are using facilities. This forces those accessing these essential services to temporarily abandon their belongings and shelters.
“Some people stay at the tent city in Vancouver because there is no where they can take their belongings,” Fiona York of Friends of The Carnegie Community Centre Association in Vancouver told The Discourse in a Facebook message. “Even in [sic] shelters and some temporary housing, there is an issue with securely storing belongings. The one storage facility that used to exist in Vancouver closed a few years ago.”
The struggle to keep belongings and temporary shelters safe when unhoused citizens aren’t presently in them has led Pivot Legal Society to draft and distribute signs for unhoused residents to attach to their personal belongings.
“Please do not seize my tent” and “Please do not take my belongings,” the signs state, adding that for law enforcement and bylaw officers to remove these items puts their personal health and safety at risk and “does not stand up to constitutional scrutiny.”
As I’ve previously reported, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled last October that an encampment in Prince George could not be dismantled by the city until suitable housing and daytime shelters were available. But as city and BC Housing staff worked to relocate residents to shelters, the city bulldozed the remaining tents and belongings.
After concerns from local residents were published in the paper, the city responded with a statement defending its actions, arguing they were removing abandoned items only.
There is a word that I keep hearing in the conversations circling around conflicts between municipalities and unhoused citizens: trauma.
“For many of our vulnerable, they are very regularly dispersed by the RCMP and Bylaw Enforcement… in a way that is often retraumatizing, especially when done in a non-trauma informed way and without any assistance, only enforcement present,” RISEBRIDGE wrote in their Jan. 8 response to the mayor.
The statement calls on the city to “incorporate the community when it comes to eviction ‘notifications’ including service providers and outreach teams, the RCMP mental health liaison, advocates, health providers and peer support workers.”
Had outreach members been informed of the upcoming eviction, RISEBRIDGE argues, work could be done to help unhoused citizens find space for their items, reconnect with community resources and create a calm transition out of the Bastion Street parkade.
As one reader commented on Facebook “I cannot fathom the trauma and the further destruction of lives that has been experienced by this displacement. The blankets, clothing, food and personal belongings in these encampments is literally all they have.“
I wonder as well, not only about the trauma faced by people living on our streets, but the weariness and defeat of those who worked to gather resources and donations to give to RISEBRIDGE. As calls go out once again for supplies, many are looking around and wondering if there’s anything left they can give to their unhoused neighbours.