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Nanaimo housing announcement faces pushback from some residents

There were some heated moments in Nanaimo, B.C., on Monday as the province unveiled a new agreement with the city aimed at improving conditions for the region’s homeless.

The memorandum of understanding, announced Monday, sets out both the city and the province’s responsibilities in implementing Homeless Encampment Action Response Teams (HEART) and the Homeless Encampment Action Response Temporary Housing (HEARTH) programs.

Under the agreement, the city has committed to making municipal land available and speeding up land use decisions for new shelter and supportive housing projects through the province.

The province also announced 100 new temporary housing spaces at a pair of new facilities. At the same time, the province said it would keep the 50 temporary spaces at Newcastle Place at 250 Terminal Ave. open for new residents, as the previous tenants move to some of the new spaces.

That news sparked backlash from some residents of the Newcastle neighbourhood, who believe the temporary facility is behind an increase in crime and street disorder.

Karen Kuwica, president of the Newcastle Community Association, said she was “blindsided” by the announcement.

The province, she said, has promised for years to replace the transitional housing at the site with more permanent housing for people who have begun to stabilize their lives.

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“That hasn’t happened,” she said.

“The community is again being asked to extend itself and to accommodate people that need to adjust to living in a more stable environment, and that has brought a considerable amount of distress, chaos, suffering and safety issues.”

Collen Middleton, president of the Nanaimo Public Safety Association, said the province and the city had made the decision with “zero consultation” of residents.

“The mayor has acknowledged the impacts that these types of properties have on the surrounding communities, and there is nothing, nothing being done to ensure that these neighbourhoods remain healthy and stable and vibrant,” he said.

“If they can get rid of the drug trafficking and the gangs an the violence, this would be a whole lot easier to take, but right now the province does not have a handle on this.”

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog said he understood there would be concerns about transitional housing in the community, but that the facilities are necessary.

“In what world would it make sense to leave those units empty when you have hundreds of people without housing?” he asked.

Krog added that it was unfair to attribute all crime and violence in the area to the Newcastle facility. He pointed to an incident where a resident was shot after entering a homeless encampment to retrieve what he alleged was stolen property as an example. Prosecutors later dropped charges against the accused shooter, determining he acted in self defence.

“The reality is there were people who were unhoused who were living in the embankment,” he said. “You cannot blame the Newcastle housing site for that in and of itself.”

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said the province is still working with Nanaimo on finding other locations for more permanent housing.

But he said while that work is underway, his priority was getting people off the street and out of encampments into indoor housing.

“When we have hundreds of people that need housing, that find themselves homeless. It’s a challenge — it’s a challenge for people in the community and its a challenge for those individuals,” Kahlon said.

“Since I’ve become the minister of housing the two things I’ve heard consistently is that everyone knows we are in a housing crisis, yet everyone has concerns if that housing is built near them.”

The spaces announced Monday include a lease for a temporary prefabricated transitional housing facility at 1300 Island Highway, with room for 50 people, expected to come online in the next several months.

Another 51-unit permanent supportive housing project at 285 Prideaux St., which will house residents moving out of the Newcastle facility, is expected to be complete within a few weeks.

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