Analysis: People living on the streets are struggling. Their neighbours are too.

A lack of investment in the necessities of life, from health care to housing, has left residents of Nanaimo to ‘pick up the pieces.’

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When I sit down to write a series, I typically try to break the issue down into a simple outline that often takes the form of questions: What is the situation currently? How did things get this way? What can be done about it?

When I wrote about homelessness and then Nanaimo’s rental crisis, I noticed they had overlapping themes. Things like addiction, poverty and the increasing unaffordability of everything from housing to the cost of groceries. But there was one subject that kept surfacing that seemed to overlay the entire situation, which was that the lack of investment in social supports aimed at prevention left the cost of dealing with social disorder in Nanaimo to fall on regular city residents’ shoulders.

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‘I’m constantly policing this area

This phenomenon was probably best exemplified when I spoke to Chrissy Forsythe, who runs the Delicado’s restaurant in the Old City Quarter. They’re located on Wesley Street, just up the road from what was (at the time) a tent city filled with a growing number of Nanaimo’s least-fortunate citizens. Following a propane tank fire in December, the site was evicted and about 100 residents scattered throughout the city with nowhere to go and they have been continually displaced since

When I went in to chat with her last fall she described a scenario in which she was not only trying to keep her business alive during the challenges of a pandemic, but on a daily basis was also required to voluntarily perform the roles of health care worker, social worker, emergency medical attendant, security guard and janitor.

“I’m constantly policing this area. Like if somebody’s behind my building, I’m back there, I’m giving out Narcan, having to Narcan people,” she said, referring to a medication used in emergency situations to reverse drug overdoses. “This morning, they’ve kicked the water tap off the dental office, so I’m over there at 6:30 this morning with a wrench, fixing the shit on the outside of their building. Every day I’m like ‘argh!’ It’s non-stop.”

Related: How people in Nanaimo are overcoming the crisis on their streets

She described having to kick down the bathroom door of her restaurant when people overdosed inside, one of which she had to drag out and revive on the floor in the middle of a lunch rush. The stories, and the frustration, were overwhelming.

“I’m constantly 360-ing, making sure none of my customers are going to have issues or anything… I’m on high alert. Am I going to have to go out there and deal with this guy? Am I going to have to call 911? I’ve got a patio full of people,” she said. 

Few people understood how the chaos of social disorder in Nanaimo was such an everyday occurrence for her, she said, adding that she wished there were support systems in place to take this kind of pressure off of the general public. 

Chrissy Forsythe stands near the window smiling in spite of living with the effects of social disorder at her downtown business.
Chrissy Forsythe, owner of Delicado’s, says something needs to be done to take pressure off the community. Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

It’s a common refrain.

A couple of months ago, my friend Sarah Webber told me about how she had taken her dog and kids for a walk just off Nanaimo Lakes Road and when she returned, she found that someone had cut the catalytic converter out of her car. 

“I just pulled out onto the road and as I accelerated, the car was super loud. It sounded like a monster truck. So I pulled over and got out, and I knew to look under the car for the catalytic converter, because my parents’ had been stolen already,” she says. “And there were two perfect, fresh cuts. Obviously they had a battery-operated grinder or whatever they used. So whoever came and did it, did it within 45 minutes and were clearly prepared and professional.”

The problem, as described by Sarah, strikes a similar tone to the struggles outlined by Chrissy. And they’re far from alone. When I mentioned her story to a friend and mom-of-three Breanna, she said the same thing had also just happened to her.

‘It is the community member who ultimately bears the price’ for social disorder in Nanaimo

When this kind of crime occurs, Sarah says she thinks people pay the price in two ways. One is directly—in the cost of the insurance deductible and the depreciation cost between a new catalytic converter and the old one. She describes how in the process of getting her car fixed, it sets off the domino effect of a whole informal economy in which everyone takes their cut: the person who stole the converter, the resale value for the scrap metal guy, the person working the desk cataloging the theft at ICBC, the repair shop who fixes it for her, the parts store, and so on. 

Sarah webber gazes into the distance at the location of a recent theft to her car, a common form of social disorder in Nanaimo.
Nanaimo resident Sarah Webber is not alone in dealing with theft. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

“And it all ends up resting back on the shoulders of me—single mom, resident of Nanaimo,” Sarah says, sounding exasperated. “So we pay in that way. As a community, whenever there is theft of personal property or vandalism like this, it is the community member who ultimately bears the price to provide for folks whose needs are not being met through other means. So there’s that price.” 

The other price people pay is their sense of safety, she says. She doesn’t want to live in isolation from those who are struggling. “I want to feel safe to take my children and dog for a walk. And I haven’t been back to that trail since. And I won’t go back. Because I can’t afford the cost of a catalytic converter in order to walk my dog and my children. So it’s a safety matter, and a matter of quality of life.”

When I interviewed Mayor Leonard Krog about the rising numbers of local residents without homes, with many suffering from substance abuse issues, brain injuries and untreated mental illness, he described the situation as a “crisis.” He also expressed concern that many residents and business owners he spoke to were experiencing “compassion fatigue”.

Sarah Webber's dog sits on the ground ready to catch a ball on Nanaimo Lakes Road, near where Sarah's car was vandalized.
Sarah Webber walks her dog near Nanaimo Lakes Road for the first time since the theft, as she keeps a careful eye on her car. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

‘It was coming, everybody saw it’

Nanaimo does seem to be at a kind of breaking point. Local social media groups overflow with stories of theft and desperation, many of them littered with bitter and divisive comments, a common thread being one of citizens left frustrated, angry and uncertain how to proceed.

Last month, the Nanaimo RCMP sounded the alarm about a string of arsons in the downtown core—more than 20 fires within three months—that they believed had been deliberately set. 

Further fueling problems like this is that since COVID-19 hit, “nobody’s going to jail, even for significant events” like assault and arson, says Nanaimo RCMP spokesman Gary O’Brien. 

“We’re getting guys on the weekend and we’re going, ‘Oh, just release them on an undertaking’ (similar to a promise to appear in court). And people are going what?” he says. “We just know they’re not going to go to jail, because the courts are very lenient during the COVID situation, (and they’re reluctant) to put anybody in jail because that’s where huge outbreaks can happen.”

In June, Gary put out a report describing what the previous month of policing in Nanaimo looked like. One of the striking things he mentions is that seven per cent of the total calls to the Nanaimo RCMP, or approximately 300 calls per month (that number has now been revised to 400) are to check on a person’s well-being. That’s an average of 13 calls a day.

When I asked him about these calls, Gary said that 80 per cent of them involve some form of social disorder in Nanaimo, or mental health crisis, which can be taxing for RCMP officers whose primary mandate is to deal with the criminal code.

“It’s impossible. We have one mental health liaison officer and two forensic nurses or psychiatric nurses. They don’t go to all the calls. They don’t go on any calls after four o’clock in the afternoon, so 75 per cent of the calls are frontline officers. Because there’s nobody else out there who’ve been going to these calls,” says Gary. The mental health liaison officer is a first for the city, and was only added last year. 

The practice of using RCMP officers to conduct wellness checks has come under criticism with the shooting death of Chantel Moore, including a case in Nanaimo in which a woman claimed an RCMP wellness check left her with a broken nose and damaged teeth. 

When we discussed how he thinks the situation got this way, Gary says, “It comes down to money.” For years, the chiefs of police in various municipalities went before their mayor and council repeatedly to warn that their number of social disorder calls in Nanaimo were climbing higher year after year, but little was done, he says.

“It was talked about for years, it was kicked about, and there were group sessions and Zoom chats and dialogues and discussion papers, but nothing was ever accomplished. Suddenly it crept up on us, on almost every community. And it got to that boiling point, and it started tipping over. And now every community’s facing the same thing, chasing their tails. Because what do we do now? It was coming, everybody saw it, but nobody was committing the resources to it. And now, because we’re here, [the police] are the one constant in all of this, we have to pick up the pieces. And it’s taking a toll on us,” he says. Resources spent addressing mental health keeps RCMP from tackling more serious crimes, he adds.

Nanaimo RCMP spokesman Gary O’Brien is pictured in uniform. He speaks about the social disorder unfolding on the streets of Nanaimo.
Nanaimo RCMP spokesman Gary O’Brien says the complex mental health issues unfolding on the streets creates problems for RCMP whose primary mandate is to deal with the criminal code. Photo by Julie Chadwick

In a governance and priorities committee meeting earlier this year, bylaw services manager Dave LaBerge spoke about the need for health-based responses for Nanaimo social disorder calls rather than RCMP, who are not supposed to deal with these types of calls. 

Unlike other communities, like the Cowichan Valley and Surrey, Nanaimo does not have a Car program, an established model for de-escalation that pairs nurses specialized in mental health with RCMP officers. Though the RCMP has made its business case for such a program, it’s been deferred by council.

To their credit, the City of Nanaimo did support the funding for its first mental health liaison officer last year, says Gary, and there are plans to request more funding to expand that section to three members in the next municipal budget cycle.

“It’s getting there. But this is probably something—and nobody will disagree—that we could have had three to five years earlier, in place. And that would have been groundbreaking. But the larger areas, larger centres like Vancouver and Toronto, have had those for years because of the sheer numbers. But now the numbers are so big that all the smaller towns are seeing it. That’s what’s happening.”

Related: Nanaimo’s homelessness crisis is a mental health crisis, too

‘We need a more equitable scenario’

My efforts to answer the huge and difficult question of “what can be done” while writing both the rental affordability and the homelessness series often led to an attempt to understand the broader economic issues that underpin local crises.

When I talked to social planner, author and university professor Patrick Condon about why rents and house prices have become inaccessible to so many, he painted a picture of how over decades, vast amounts of wealth had moved from working people to the investor class, or the richest sector of society, and how they were then socking that money away into real estate as a safe investment. That process has only accelerated over the last year under COVID-19 conditions.

Related: Rents in Nanaimo skyrocketed. Here’s why.

Add in a hot housing market that is prompting many landlords to sell, along with the stratospheric rise of players like real estate investment trusts, among others, and you have a situation where booting out long-term tenants and hiking their rents is incentivized and people are left desperate.

In a nutshell, I learned that this is what can happen when human rights like housing are left to the whims of the private market—it can have a devastating effect that trickles down to individuals living and trying to survive in places like Nanaimo. 

And it can happen incredibly fast: one of the most striking things we found in researching rental trends was that the average rent for a two-bedroom unit had soared by 59 per cent in just five years. With nearly 20 per cent of the population living on low-incomes, and about 20 per cent of families single parents, it’s no surprise about 6,000 residents are on the verge of homelessness

The way I came to understand it is this: In a civilized society, people who are generally well-off are taxed, and that tax money is then put towards collective programs and services like health care, which are considered to be an investment in the greater good of society.

These services include ones aimed at preventing people from sliding into crisis, and those meant to help people already in crisis: things like detox beds, addiction services, supportive housing, low-income housing, support workers, mental health liaison officers and psychiatric nurses, for example. 

When funding for those services are hidden away in offshore investments, or unavailable because of inadequate taxation, or are lacking as a result of government cuts and bungling, it means that ultimately, what gets redistributed to those in need are the meagre resources of people like Sarah and Chrissy, which are gathered (or taken) through theft and social disorder.

It’s not only unsustainable, it also raises a lot of questions.

Are we okay with this? That’s the question I walk around with. What else do we need in order to decide that we don’t like this?” says Sarah. “We need a more equitable scenario where people don’t need to [commit crimes] in order to get their needs met.”

Let’s keep the discourse on this issue going. I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions. [end]

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