Nanaimo This Week: A safe place to sleep

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There’s been a lot of discussion around the new sleeping cabins that arrived this month in Cowichan so some of their unsheltered residents can be more comfortable as the cold weather sets in. I became aware of Cowichan’s approach when local MP Paul Manly posted a live video to Facebook as he toured one of their municipally-managed homeless sites.

The eight-by-eight foot plywood structures—fitted out with a sleeping platform, locking door, window, heater, light and electrical outlet—were built by local company Nexus Modular Solutions and arrived on Jan. 8.  

I reached out to Nanaimo’s former social planner John Horn who’s overseeing the sleeping cabin project in his new position as the executive director of the Cowichan Housing Association.

They originally set up camps on municipal parking lots as a “shelter in place” response to the pandemic, he says. With support from BC Housing they bought tents and supplies, had service providers come by to check on folks and provided three meals a day and other amenities like toilets and water. 

However, as the weather cooled off it soon became clear that the tents were inadequate and unsafe to heat. A similar problem had emerged in Nanaimo around this time within the Wesley Street encampment, which ultimately resulted in a fire and the eviction of the encampment in December. Many displaced residents are now living in nearby parks.

“We began to worry about the fire risk, so we began to work backwards—how do we give people safe heat?” says Horn. Ultimately they decided electric baseboards were the only safe option, which weren’t possible in tents, so the idea for small sleeping bunks emerged. “Something that’s a little more fit for human habitation than a tent in the winter,” he adds.

There are 39 units, with 12 for older adults, 12 situated in downtown Duncan and 12 for young adults, with the extras used for staff.

“It’s got a lot more dignity than living in the park as a quasi-permitted guest. It’s a very tenuous existence when you put up a tent in a park,” says Horn. “It’s a chaotic life out there.”

I asked Horn if he thought this was something that could be replicated in other municipalities like Nanaimo, which have received criticism over the way it handled the Wesley Street eviction and the lack of basic amenities like drinking water and toilets for displaced residents.

“I think it is transferable, because everyone’s facing the same problem. And secondly, what we asked the City of Duncan to do was to be the leader in our community around figuring out how is local government going to be comfortable with this,” says Horn, who acknowledges that though Nanaimo has a larger population, the possibility exists for it to “make the same choices.”

For a deep dive into the issue of youth homelessness, I also recommend Shalu Mehta’s piece published by The Discourse Cowichan last week.

Front Street facelift

A fence surrounds the waterfront property of 10 Front Street Nanaimo. The site is now a hole of rubble.
The view from 10 Front Street is one of the best in the city. What used to be a vibrant hub sits in limbo. Photo by Julie Chadwick

As part of our investigation into the revitalization of Nanaimo’s downtown core, I dug into two Front Street properties with vibrant histories. Vicki White, who ran the Global Connections restaurant at 10 Front Street from 1996 to 2002, summarizes the plight of this area well: “It just seems that end of town has a hard time.”

The venue featured not just food but also goods to purchase from all over the world like Indian rugs, masks and African baskets, as well as local art. It was also a hub for events and hosted Nanaimo musicians, dancers, and authors. “It’s fond memories for me, I have fond memories of the people more so than anything,” she adds.

What’s next for this former community hub? Read my latest on the Front Street properties’ fleeting facelift.

What’s going on?

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When you subscribe, you’ll get Nanaimo This Week straight to your inbox every Thursday — giving you the first peek at our latest investigations, local news updates, upcoming events and ways to get involved in our community.

  • Now: Literacy Central Vancouver Island has released the second issue Place Magazine: Youth Voices From the Street. A project of their youth program, and supported by the Community Action Team, it features 28 pages of art, poetry and stories from youth who are unhoused. The publication is now available (along with the first edition, which focused on the voices of Indigenous youth) at Well Read Books on Commercial Street.
  • Feb. 10 and 11: This year’s Gustafson Distinguished Poet’s Lecture features Canadian poet Lillian Allen, the “godmother of dub,” and you can watch it live from your living room. She will give the Gustafson Lecture on February 11 and a reading/performance on February 10. You can register here.
  • February 6 and 20, March 6 and 20: Local hosts Kirsten (Putu) Hunter and Kate Burns are starting a bi-weekly online gathering aimed at “honouring what we love” while exploring responses to “the suffering caused by the pandemic, systemic injustice, climate change, political instability, runaway capitalism and other crises of our time.” Sounds interesting. You can register here.

Community shout-out

A illustrated depiction of the doughnut economic model shows buildings encircling a world.
Illustration by Chris Dent/TIME

Many of you have been asking about Nanaimo’s recent adoption of the doughnut model of economics and what exactly that means.

For further explanation, Time Magazine has published a feature on the topic and even mentioned Nanaimo as one of the municipalities that have embraced the economic theory.

In your words

“Just want to say that I appreciate having this kind of quality, in-depth news source and storytelling here in Nanaimo/Snuneymuxw and I hope you get all the support you need to keep it going. Thanks for your writing and for the great work you’re doing.”

—Jessica W. 

Thank you, Jessica. I read everything you send me and appreciate your feedback. Send me a note, anytime. [end]

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