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Bloody knives last straw for Nanaimo cafe offering soup tokens for the homeless

Gabriel’s Cafe had offered soup in exchange for tokens that donors would purchase for $4.50 and hand out to those in need, but ended the program out of concern for staff safety.
Gabriel's Gourmet Café on Commercial Street in Nanaimo. GOOGLE STREET VIEW

Worries about staff safety have prompted a downtown Nanaimo café to end a program where it offered soup in exchange ­for tokens that donors would ­purchase for $4.50 and hand out to those in need.

Gemma and Gabe Martin, owners of Gabriel’s Cafe, say they had been thinking about making the change for several months, but the issue came to a head when they learned that someone had come into the Commercial Street café with a pair of knives with blood on them.

The person put the knives on a table and asked for a bowl of soup, they said in a statement.

Gemma Martin said staff safety is their No. 1 priority.

Gabe Martin added: “We’ve had people fall asleep at our tables, or lock themselves in our bathroom, and we have been understanding when that ­happens, and willing to deal with that.”

The knives, however, were the final straw.

Between Oct. 1 of last year and Jan. 15, the café served 718 bowls of soup to people in need. Of those, 156 were paid for with a token.

But the cafe will now be donating to the ­Wisteria ­Community Association, which distributes food and hot ­beverages to people without homes and others in need in Nanaimo nightly.

Gabriel’s customers can make donations to Wisteria at the café.

The Martins said they have great compassion for unhoused and impoverished residents who “work to survive every day” and understand their need for increased supports.

They also said they are staunch defenders of the city’s core. Last fall, they expanded by buying The Modern, at 221 Commercial St.

Fred Jeffery, chair of the Downtown Nanaimo Business Association, owns clothing store Lucid, next door to Gabriel’s, where he goes most days for lunch.

He said he arrived at the café last month shortly after the ­customer with the knives, who was outside by then. Jeffery said he heard that the man was apologetic.

Efforts to deal with ­problems in downtown Nanaimo are ­taking place on multiple levels, he said, praising city council for ­bringing a community safety officer program into the core — something he said is having a “really great impact.”

Safety officers steer people in need to services that can help them, which helps free up RCMP officers, said Jeffery, who ­maintains downtown is safe. “There are quite a lot of people who are coming down here and enjoying downtown.”

Nanaimo, like other cities, is facing chronic problems with mental-health and addictions issues, opioid deaths, fears about crime and a shortage of housing.

A public-safety rally that attracted close to 200 people was held in the city last weekend, ­following an earlier one in the fall.

Karen Kuwica, who emceed the rally, said many ­people feel helpless about the ­ongoing ­problems. They feel like they need to “adapt to the ­circumstances rather than the circumstances improving. That’s an overwhelming feeling.”

Kuwica cited recent incidents of violence including a fatal stabbing, armed robbery and fires.

Mayor Leonard Krog ­reiterated his position that some people need secure involuntary care. “As a mayor, I ­emphasize my call again to wake up ­provincial government, wake up federal government. What we have right now is not working. It is not improving and indeed, it is arguably worse.”

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