Nanaimo cracks down on makeshift shelters at downtown ‘magnet’

Nanaimo is cracking down on the growing number of temporary shelters being erected on a narrow downtown street.

Morning enforcement sweeps on Wesley Street by the RCMP and city bylaw staff have drastically cut the number of ad-hoc shelters in the last couple of days. The latest enforcement push started Jan. 6.

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In the past couple of days, they’ve found only one tent standing in the morning, Dave LaBerge, Nanaimo manager of community safety, said Wednesday.

LaBerge said the recent extreme weather, including snow and heavy rains, might have contributed to the dwindling number of encampments on Wesley Street. He assumes campers have relocated, at least for now, to undeveloped park areas where they are permitted to stay overnight.

Typically, it can take about two months to break the pattern of people camping out, he said. “Normally when we do something like this, it’s like trying to hold the ocean back with a broom.”

Wesley Street is a magnet for Nanaimo’s street population because of the services located there, such as an overdose-prevention site, which opened in early 2017, a Canadian Mental Health Association office and a health clinic.

Campers have been setting up in the area since the Port Place tent city was dismantled, LaBerge said. Some of those campers moved to supportive housing, but many still have no place to live.

Shelters filling up Wesley Street have included tents, tarps and large wooden structures. Some days, there would be up to 20 setups, LaBerge said.

“We had big things sprawled across the road.”

Campers brought discarded wood-burning stoves and burn barrels to the 400 block of the one-way street, and garbage piled up.

Open-air drug use and minor stabbings occurred, LaBerge said. Nearby social agencies, taxi drivers and businesses sought help.

A short-term RCMP task force responded to public complaints in the fall, but the problem became more intense toward the end of last year, LaBerge said.

After discussions with Island Health, the Canadian Mental Health Association and the RCMP, the decision was made to more rigorously enforce a bylaw that prohibits campers from putting up any type of shelter on the street or street right-of-way, he said.

Outreach teams gave campers notice that beefed-up enforcement would begin Jan. 6, LaBerge said.

City sanitation crews have been hauling away truckloads of garbage — such as broken golf clubs and old ceiling fans pulled from dumpsters, he said. “We just end up packing all that stuff up and taking it away.”

At times, half-ton city trucks took away three or four loads in one day, after the material accumulated overnight, he said.

“If we don’t really stay on this, it’s like a runaway freight train. It accumulates really quickly.”

After the morning checks, LaBerge is able to keep an eye on the street from his office in the city service and resource centre overlooking Wesley Street.

LaBerge estimates that about 500 people are homeless in Nanaimo. A survey is planned for March to determine the extent of the problem.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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