The City of Nanaimo says it is cracking down on homeless encampments being set up in the downtown core: (City of Nanaimo)

The 2020 Nanaimo Point-in-Time Homeless Count (PiT Count) was released Monday and shows a bleak trend in the city’s homelessness situation.

According to this year’s PiT Count, which was conducted just before many COVID-19 lockdowns came into effect in March, found that at least 433 people in Nanaimo were homeless, though organizers believe the real number is likely closer to 600.

Even so, the conservative 433 count marks a 29 per cent increase in the number of people who are unsheltered in the city compared to 2018, when 355 people were considered homeless. This year’s count more than doubles the number seen in 2016, when 174 people were identified as homeless in Nanaimo.

Organizers of the count say that the city has been taking steps to address homelessness, though more needs to be done to curb the trend moving forward.

“Despite investments in social and supportive housing over the last five years and increased funding for service providers, the homeless crisis is increasing in our city, as it is in communities across the island and B.C.,” said Jason Harrison, Nanaimo Homeless Coalition co-chair, in a release Monday.

This year’s PiT Count found that most unsheltered people in Nanaimo are from the city, with 71.2 per cent reporting that they lived in the city for at least five years.

Organizers say that those facing homelessness moved to the city “for the same reasons as everyone else: work, school and family.”

Not enough affordable housing

The vast majority of PiT Count respondents told organizers they became homeless due to housing affordability challenges, and not because of challenges due to mental health or substance abuse.

Thirty-four per cent of respondents simply said that they could not afford rent, while 27.7 per cent said they had lost housing because of a conflict with a landlord or other tenant. A further 18.4 per cent of respondents said they became homeless after they had a conflict with a partner or spouse.

Most respondents, at 91 per cent, said they want to access permanent housing but find it difficult, largely due to the cost of rent in the city.

“Once they lose their housing, the greatest barriers to finding new housing are low income and high rents; very few people found that mental health or substance use are their greatest barriers to finding or maintaining housing,” said PiT Count organizers.

Seventy-one per cent of respondents said that having more affordable housing in the city would be the largest step in helping reduce homelessness in Nanaimo.

Besides a lack of affordable housing, PiT Count organizers say that a lack of shelter beds and temporary housing is also a concern in the city.

“Right now Nanaimo has approximately 150 shelter beds, which is far below the current need,” said the organizers – which include the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition, Nanaimo Region John Howard Society and United Way Central and Northern Vancouver Island groups.

With shelters being full, approximately 61.9 per cent of PiT count respondents said that they had been forced to sleep somewhere that is “not intended for human habitation.”

To put that in perspective, PiT Count organizers say that rate is much higher than other Canadian communities. In Victoria, 18 per cent of unsheltered people had to sleep in a place not intended for human habitation, according to the 2020 PiT Count. 

Point-in-Time Count recommendations

Moving forward, PiT Count organizers say that Nanaimo’s Health and Housing Task Force – which was created by city council in 2019 – will work with the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition and United Way Central and Northern Vancouver Island groups to address homelessness.

One of the first steps that the task force is going to take is creating a “Coordinated Access System” (CAS) which will help different service providers communicate in the region.

“The current system in Nanaimo is decentralized, meaning that service providers and housing operators do not have a way to consistently share information about available resources or to track their clients’ needs,” said PiT organizers.

Having a CAS in place will help streamline distribution of resources and will assist service providers in understanding what their clients need and what services are available to them, according to the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition.

Since March, the city and BC Housing have announced that more than 300 new affordable homes will also be built in Nanaimo over the next several years.

Any Nanaimo resident who is looking for more information about available resources can visit HelpSeeker.org, or download the Help Seeker app, according to the city.

“Hopefully, with recommendations and actions resulting from the City of Nanaimo’s Health and Housing Task Force, this fall we can start addressing the root causes of homelessness and together push for major investments at every level of government and processes and relationships will be set to make real systemic changes,” said Harrison.