Protesters at vacant Nanaimo school being removed from roof, arrested

Update

Nanaimo RCMP are in the process of removing protesters from the roof of Rutherford Elementary School with the help of a fire department ladder truck.

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All of the protesters are being arrested for break-and-enter and mischief, said Nanaimo RCMP Const. Gary O’Brien.

The school will be boarded back up.

Homeless advocates occupied the empty school for a “schoolhouse squat” just hours after the province announced it would provide 170 units of supportive housing for residents of Nanaimo’s tent city

About 30 people from Nanaimo’s DisconTent City entered the school and by Friday evening, they were standing on the roof of Rutherford Elementary School, looking at RCMP officers below.

The group “opened the door” to get into the school, said Sophie Wending, a tent city organizer. Asked if it was locked, she replied: “I am not at liberty to talk about that.”

Banners saying “Fight for Homes” and “Fight for Justice” were draped on the school.

“We are here to take back some space. This building is lying empty and people are sleeping outside,” Wending said.

“We are opening up this space so that people can come here and occupy this space instead. It is warmer and drier. We are hoping that people will be able to come and join us here.”

Wending said people occupied the school because of the Oct. 12 eviction date for DisconTent City. The promised housing will not meet the needs of all homeless people in Nanaimo, she said.

Several police officers were at the scene Friday evening to keep anyone else from going in the building and to monitor those gathered outside, said O’Brien.

“It’s pretty tense right now,” he said. “A lot of people are very upset by the actions the homeless people have taken, so we’re there to calm the waters and keep the peace. People have been yelling and screaming. There are very few people in support of the actions taken.

“The overwhelming majority are against it.”

Still, O’Brien said he was not anticipating any problems, since most people would likely leave as the night grew colder.

Ruby, who would not give her last name, was among those in the school. She called the province’s supportive housing “soft incarceration,” adding: “It’s not a home.”

She said residents would be monitored and told who is allowed to visit. “I don’t know if that’s how you would like to live, but it is certainly not how I want to live.”

Tent city organizers have estimated that about 300 people have been living at the 1 Port Dr. site, which was set up in the spring.

Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay said he does not expect tenters to move out on the court-ordered eviction date. The city will talk to all the parties involved, work with service providers and fast-track licences and permits for the province to provide housing, McKay said. The mayor said the goal has always been to take a phased approach to moving residents away from the tent city, in compliance with a court order that was delivered after the city sought an injunction.

B.C. has spent $2 million to buy a lot at 250 Terminal Ave. in Nanaimo, where 80 units of modular housing will be located. A City of Nanaimo property at 2020 Labieux Rd. will receive another 90 units. The cost to buy and install the 170 units of supportive housing at both sites is approximately $1.6 million.

“These buildings will provide safe, secure temporary housing while more permanent housing can be built,” Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Selina Robinson said. Another 40 to 50 campers could be housed in market-rental units with rent supplements, she said.

The modular housing should be ready by late November, said Robinson, who is asking the city to allow the tent city to remain in place until then.

She wants the province and city to work together on a phased closure and identify the needs of individuals.

B.C. bought existing housing “because we don’t have time to put in an order to manufacture it,” Robinson said. “It’s on its way to Nanaimo as we speak.”

The housing will give people “a dry, warm place to stay at night,” she said.

“The key factor is really having supports for people and we are committed to making sure people can be supported in their housing.”

Services could include mental health, medical, addiction, or employment supports.

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