The City of Nanaimo will further investigate an initiative to set up two 12-cabin sites to create transitional emergency housing for people experiencing homelessness. (Black Press file photo)

City of Nanaimo will ask for expressions of interest to operate tiny cabin sites

Staff expresses concern about workload, councillor says sheltering people must take priority

City council has heard some more information about tiny cabins for people experiencing homelessness and now wants to see if any partners are willing to run that kind of housing in Nanaimo.

At a meeting Monday, April 19, councillors voted 5-4 to direct staff to prepare a report, including potential locations for 24 cabins, and ask social service agencies if they would be interested in operating cabin sites.

In February, council asked for a report on sleeping cabins, also referred to as transitional emergency housing or the Cowichan housing model.

Nanaimo staff’s report, delivered Monday, estimated that two 12-cabin sites would cost $212,000-$365,000 to build plus $352,000 in annual operating costs, or $910,000 plus $576,000 operating costs for two “enhanced” sites with modular trailers instead of cabins. Staff suggested the city could draw from its housing legacy reserve, and pointed to opportunities for federal funding for capital costs and provincial funding for operating costs.

The City of Nanaimo staff report said Cowichan’s tiny cabins “are one example of emergency housing,” and noted that Nanaimo already has provincially funded temporary supportive housing for 164 people that meets fire safety standards, has washrooms, showers and laundry, provides meals, health and wellness supports and has 24-hour staffing and security.

Staff didn’t make a recommendation regarding the tiny cabins, but the report included comments from Dale Lindsay, general manager of development services, indicating that his department’s staff resources are “currently fully allocated with a focus on establishing permanent housing solutions in the community.”

Coun. Ben Geselbracht made the motion to ask staff to proceed with a second report on the tiny cabins and issue a request for expressions of interest to operate them, acknowledging that the city “may have to shuffle” some other projects in the meantime.

“I think that there are a few things that are probably less a priority than providing shelter for people…” Geselbracht said. “We’re getting to the place where it’s starting to become OK to just step over somebody and when you start seeing a society that just steps over people … it’s sick.”

He said there’s an “extreme” homelessness, mental health and addictions crisis and said the consequences are unacceptable for the entire community.

“On the current trajectory we’re headed for another tent city and that will only worsen the conditions for everyone,” he said.

Coun. Don Bonner said emergency shelter for 24 people isn’t a lot considering the hundreds who are unhoused, but said if the project proves successful, “then we can scale it up.” Coun. Erin Hemmens also voted in favour, calling the approximately $700,000 startup costs an investment “that if done properly and intentionally, will reduce the strain on business, on residents in general and specifically on those without homes.”

Coun. Sheryl Armstrong was opposed for a few reasons, mostly the strain on city staff, and Mayor Leonard Krog felt the city’s efforts on the homelessness file were better directed toward other current projects.

“I’m simply not prepared to expend energy on something which I do not believe will result in any improvement in our situation and will in fact detract from the Herculean efforts of staff now trying to work with … [the B.C. government], B.C. Housing and other agencies, all trying to implement the recommendations of the health and housing task force,” Krog said.

READ ALSO: Nanaimo’s health and housing task force presents action plan to address homelessness

Chief administrative officer Jake Rudolph said councillors are seeing homelessness on the streets and are looking for short-term housing solutions.

“It feels a bit shotgun-ish, to be honest, not strategic…” he said. “We already have temporary housing in this city – 150 people in them. That’s a lot more than the [cabins] that are in Duncan.”

He cautioned councillors to manage expectations, saying it might not be a quick turnaround to identify locations for sleeping cabins and potentially address zoning concerns and all the other “layers” of the project.

Coun. Tyler Brown said he recognized other work was underway on the homelessness file, but felt the cabin initiative was worth at least exploring further.

“I do think there’s good things happening, but I know one thing: all those good things are not enough,” he said.

Geselbracht’s motion passed with Mayor Krog and councillors Armstrong, Ian Thorpe and Jim Turley opposed.

READ ALSO: City of Nanaimo looking at setting up tiny cabins for people experiencing homelessness


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