Nanaimo RCMP say that 27 people removed from Rutherford Elementary School over the weekend were arrested for break-and-entering and mischief.
Twenty-six of those arrested were released on promises to appear in Nanaimo provincial court Dec. 11. One man was held in custody pending an expected Tuesday court date because of outstanding warrants related to other matters.
Those arrested included residents of Nanaimo’s DisconTent City, advocates for the homeless from Surrey-based Alliance Against Displacement and others.
DisconTent City has been in place for five months and has up to 300 residents.
The squatters broke into Rutherford on Friday. They said they entered the school, which closed in June, to highlight the plight of homeless people.
Police said they didn’t immediately remove the squatters because of uncertainty about their intentions and concern that they might have weapons. Officers entered the school on Saturday and arrested those inside.
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The chairman of the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school board said he was “sickened” and “mortified” when he saw the damage in a Nanaimo school that had been occupied by 26 protesters.
Steve Rae said hazardous-materials experts will be hired to clean up Rutherford Elementary School to make it safe for Canadian Union of Public Employees workers, who normally clean the school.
He estimates repair and cleaning costs at $100,000, but said that could be conservative. There’s also a new cost for security in case protesters return.
On Friday, 26 protesters, advocates for homeless people with Surrey-based Alliance Against Displacement and residents of DisconTent City in Nanaimo, entered the school, which was closed in June because of declining enrolment.
The five-month-old DisconTent City has as many as 300 residents, making it the largest tent city in B.C.
RCMP cordoned off Rutherford shortly after the protesters went into the school. The next day, police entered and negotiated with and arrested the protesters. The occupation was over by 2 p.m. Watching events were about 400 residents, angry that protesters had gone into the building.
Rae and senior school district staff went in after the protesters were gone. “I was really mortified, to say the least,” he said. “I was sickened.”
Weapons, drugs, a full syringe with an unknown substance, needles, tools and food, including pasta, peanut butter, bananas and cases of water, were found, he said. A kitchen had been set up.
“It was very well-organized,” he said. “I could tell they planned on being there for an extended period of time.”
Rae posted a statement on his Facebook page: “They destroyed all our doors on the ground floor. Went through everything and threw crap everywhere.
“Upstairs we found drug paraphernalia everywhere. They put holes in the roof, which has caused a lot of damage. The[y] broke windows and ripped stuff off the walls.”
Cleanup costs will come out of school-district money that would otherwise have gone toward education, Rae said.
Most of the protesters are not from Nanaimo’s tent city, he said.
This situation is a tragedy because homelessness is a real issue, not just in Nanaimo but throughout B.C., and the occupation was not the way to deal with it, Rae said.
Protesters entered the school shortly after the province announced it had spent $3.6 million to help with the homeless situation in Nanaimo. It is bringing in 170 units of temporary modular housing, and expects to find rental units for another 40 or 50 people. The money was spent to buy and install the modular structures and to purchase one of two sites to be used for housing.
Housing Minister Selina Robinson said the province will develop permanent housing in Nanaimo.
The provincial plan is intended to empty DisconTent City and allow it to be closed by the end of November.
Listen Chen, Alliance spokeswoman, said the group wanted to turn the school “into a home and a source of shelter” for homeless people who would otherwise be outdoors.
Chen said she was arrested and charged with break-and-enter on Saturday. The first court appearance is in December. She is from the Lower Mainland and is in Nanaimo for a few days.
Housing activist Ivan Drury, from Vancouver, was also among those arrested.
More people wanted to go into the school but were unable to because RCMP blocked them from entering, Chen said.
Although Chen considers the province’s housing plan insufficient, she credits the political organization around DisconTent City for prompting the government to take action.
As far as the province’s aim to house everyone in need at the tent city, “nobody believes that,” she said.
Modular housing is inadequate and people do not like the restrictions placed on tenants in that kind of supportive housing, she said.
If the province wants people to believe that permanent housing to replace the modular housing is coming, it needs to have a concrete plan in place, she said. “I think it is just a stall tactic.”
Chen disagrees with those who think the alliance is pushing its own agenda onto Nanaimo’s homeless people. “DisconTent City has always had a political agenda.”
Nanaimo’s homeless politicized the issue themselves, and the alliance is supporting them, she said.
A group of homeless people set up tents on the lawn of Nanaimo city hall prior to DisconTent City being set up in the spring.
A narrative about protesters from elsewhere coming to Nanaimo is a xenophobic idea, given that homelessness is an issue provincewide, nationally and beyond, she said.
“We are going to have to talk about what’s next.”