People experiencing homelessness in Bowen Park last week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

People experiencing homelessness in Bowen Park last week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

Task force presents $65.5-million action plan to address homelessness in Nanaimo

Draft action plan calls for 635 new program and housing spaces over five years

Addressing homelessness in Nanaimo will take co-ordination of resources, intervention teams, and $65.5 million in investments in services and housing, according to a task force report.

At a meeting Monday, Nanaimo city council received the draft action plan from its health and housing task force and allotted $380,000 annually toward implementing the plan.

The report notes that $18.5 million is needed in 2021 to support 280 people experiencing chronic homelessness, and $65.5 million over five years to support 635 new program and housing spaces for 4,300 people.

Though a point-in-time count tallied 433 people experiencing homelessness in Nanaimo, the task force report suggests 1,800 experience homelessness at some time during a given year and another 4,200 are “on the edge.”

The health and housing task force will make way next year for a leadership group that will oversee implementation of the action plan.

An immediate priority in the plan is for the city to support the “incubation” of a homelessness-focused social planning organization to help optimize investments in services and housing. The city or the United Way could perform this function for the first few years, with the goal that it would eventually become an arm’s-length organization attached to the municipality.

The plan calls for expansion of co-ordinated service access to help “with consistent triage of priority clients” and connect individuals with existing resources, supportive housing and recommended new rental subsidies.

Consultant Alina Turner of Turner Strategies, who presented the draft action plan to council, acknowledged the $18.5 million and $65.5 million estimates sound like a lot of money, but said it would be primarily cost-shared. She compared spending $40 per person per day with the $363 it costs for a day in the hospital or $144 for a day in jail. The action plan notes that “the potential return on investment can be as high as $30:$1.”

“If we were actually able to secure this funding and meet some of the immediate targets, we’d be well underway to resolving chronic homelessness,” Turner said.

The draft plan listed 80 action items in six priority areas: co-ordination, housing, leadership and engagement, prevention, compatibility with complex needs, and poverty reduction.

READ ALSO: Nanaimo taking inventory of health, housing, homelessness services

Members of council praised, for the most part, the action plan. Coun. Ben Geselbracht said he was heartened to see the level of detail and said he’s “anxious to get going” to try to connect 100 per cent of people experiencing homelessness with access to services.

“It’s really important for the community to know that we do have a plan set up that is well-thought-out, it’s financially costed out, the organization [is] structured out and it’s a matter of supporting that plan moving forward to make it happen,” he said.

Coun. Sheryl Armstrong said everything in the action plan was previously attempted a decade ago with the Safer Nanaimo committee and hopes this time there will be more specialized supports and more health and mental health resources.

“There’s nothing new in [this] report. Nothing,” she said. “And what happened [last time] is there was a lack of commitment from partners, so it started to drop off.”

Council voted to extend the mandate of the health and housing task force and ask for a staff report and recommendations on adoption and implementation of the action plan, but later in the meeting, Coun. Tyler Brown, against staff’s recommendation, motioned to allot $380,000 annually for the action plan implementation, as well as $100,000 previously earmarked for a drop-in centre for people experiencing homelessness.

City chief administrative officer Jake Rudolph had suggested the city make preliminary requests to Island Health and B.C. Housing “because ultimately the lion’s share of the funding will have to come from those agencies, not us or the service providers.”

He said the City of Kelowna, with a similar homelessness action plan, spends $150,000 a year on co-ordination, though it also has a social development manager on staff.

Some members of council preferred to wait until the new year to commit to funding the action plan. Coun. Ian Thorpe suggested Brown’s motion was made in haste and Mayor Leonard Krog said there’s no need to commit money now to send a signal when the action plan hasn’t even been officially received by council.

“We haven’t decided on the model, we haven’t discussed this with the potential partners in all of this,” Krog said. “With great respect, there’s lots of ways to send a signal, but I’m not going to send a signal … with hundreds of thousands of dollars of the people’s money that I don’t have to commit to spending.”

The majority of council, however, was prepared to set aside money. Coun. Erin Hemmens called it “pragmatic” to provide secure funding to the portfolio and Coun. Zeni Maartman argued passionately to support the health and housing action plan with an immediate funding commitment.

“We have people that we are displacing from fires in their tents to parks where people don’t want to go because they don’t feel safe,” she said. “We need to make this investment, we need to do it now and if things don’t work out or if things change, then we’ll change it then. But right now, I want a statement made that we’re doing everything we can for our brothers and sisters that are in the street and I hope that sometime soon we have a conversation of what we can do for them now, too.”

Council voted 5-4 to put $380,000 annually toward implementation of the health and housing action plan, with Thorpe, Krog, Armstrong and Coun. Jim Turley opposed.

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editor@nanaimobulletin.com

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