Supportive Social Housing: Not In My Back Yard?

Gord Fuller: Nov. 11, 2010

Homelessness and Housing the Homeless has proven to be a contentious issue throughout North America. Strategies in the past have included creating shelters and housing and concentrating the facilities and other services to provide for large numbers in one location.  Just about every recent study done would say that doing so leads to urban blight and the ghettoization of these areas.

Housing first is not a new idea; it has been practiced in cities like New York and Toronto for over a decade, with great success, and has gradually become the ideal being practiced in other cities.  Essentially the premise is to get the homeless, many with concurrent disorders(mental health & addiction), into housing ASAP and then through assessment attaching supports to the individual or family.   Housing can take the form of New Build and existing Social Housing or be accomplished through rent subsidies for market based rental accommodation.  Locations are spread throughout the city.

Nanaimo’s strategy, developed over the last few years, proposes both of the above.  Despite recent news stories and letters to the editor, close to 30 in the Daily News, about the proposed location in the Hospital area of two new build projects there seems to be one area where all agree, that being concentration and the need to place facilities and services in all areas of Nanaimo.  Easy to say but difficult when the reality of a service becomes imminent in a neighbourhood.

Despite what many think of the current provincial government and despite the fact that this government is responsible for the dramatic increase, some say 2 or 3 hundred percent, in homelessness they have in the last couple of years been committing funding to cities that have a comprehensive homeless action plan.  Nanaimo is one such city which has received a commitment to address homelessness through Housing First.  Approximately 40 million has been promised to 160 units in 7 locations throughout Nanaimo as well as separate funding for an Assertive Community Treatment team, VIHA ACT TEAM meant specifically for those with concurrent mental health and addiction issues.

One flaw in the provinces plan is with regards to creating more Detox and Treatment/Recovery Facilities..  This aspect, while happening, falls far short in relation to the housing that is being created.  Without far more detox and treatment beds becoming available as people are transitioning into housing opt for change those options will remain limited.

The issue of the Dufferin/Boundary (Townsite) location is proving to be contentious partly because of the misinformation and fear being spread by the Hospital Area Neighbourhood Association (HANA) as well as letters in support of their position that also spread misinformation.  Comments that the complex “will inevitably lead to an increase in crime and urban blight” as well as spreading fear that the people being housed will contribute to youth drug use and prostitution are examples of the fear being spread in order to gather support.

A recent letter to the editor Low density for ‘wet’ housing better option is a prime example.  It tries to compare Pruit-Igoe, without stating the fact that this was 33 – 11 story buildings, with the Dufferin/Boundary building.  The writer is also misinformed in his comments with regards to Toronto’s Streets to Homes & Affordable Housing Program being all low density.  Of the 20 complexes recently completed or in progress, Toronto Affordable Housing Development Status, only two are comprised of below 30 units with the majority above 100 and rising to 427 units.

Another fear being put forward, that property values will drop has no basis on fact.  Properties beside Clearview Detox, Surfside Recovery House and Columbian Centre Societies housing have kept pace with those in the general vicinity with the assessed values rising and falling with the economy not because of any social facility.  One property next to Surfside is actually valued far higher than much larger properties 6 blocks away.  It is important to know that Surfside Recovery House and Columbian Centre Societies housing are located literally a stones throw from one another.

A simple question; How well do you know your neighbours?

Physical, Child, and Sexual abuse; Pedophiles, Alcoholics, Drug Addicts and Criminal activity, are all happening within homes in Nanaimo. Perhaps even in the home of your neighbour.

Low Barrier, Wet House, the reality is that these terms describe every house, condo and apartment in the city. One can do pretty much anything in their home provided they remain under the radar.  Rather than using the terms Low Barrier or Wet Housing, which are also proving contentious and misleading, I much prefer the term Supportive Social Housing.

The people you see on the street are, for the most part, not there because they want to be but because of the very behaviours that happen behind closed doors. Many do drugs to cope with what has happened to them behind those closed doors and many to cope with emotional or mental illness.

The bottom line is that the proposed Supportive Social Housing and the people that are housed there will have the same right to maintain their addiction (aka Behaviour) as anyone else in the city. The biggest difference will be that when they do choose change they will have it far easier to do so because of the supports in place.

As someone who for years has advocated a ‘housing first approach’ and the decentralization of services, even before the concepts became the adopted approach in the city, I have seen firsthand how stable housing can enable people to address barriers that might seem overwhelming without the option of easily accessible supports.

The overwhelming anxiety/fear that is being generated by misinformation put out by HANA and the lack of overall communication on the part of the City has generated a response in the Hospital Area that was easily predicted.   As Douglas Hardie so aptly puts it in a recent letter, Low barrier housing can work in any community , regarding the South End Community Associations opinion on the issue, “Anxiety is remarkably contagious. It’s easy to get swept up in an emotional process that tends to simplify and polarize the issues in a way that makes the development of good, long-term solutions less likely.”

HANA, despite spreading fear and misinformation, does however have a legitimate concern when it comes to concentration.  As stated in the MOU ( Memorandum of understanding ) signed by BC Housing and the Municipality Nov. 12, 2008, the site proposed for Boundary and Dufferin (Townsite) was put forward as “suitable for tenants with mental health and addiction issues” the proposed site on Bowen Road, not relatively far from the other, “could accommodate commercial or service uses on the ground and residential units above” and “could serve more independent tenants.”  Somewhere along the way the City began stating all will be low barrier and this type of designation is what is causing the recent problems in the Hospital Area.

In my opinion the City should sell the property on Bowen to a developer for mixed use with a 5 year covenant on the residential for people with an income of less than $20,000 and basing rent on 30% of income. After the 5 years the city could covenant a percentage of the units to stay that way with the rest either being sold or rented at market value. Once the property is sold to a developer the City could then look at purchasing properties in other areas of the city.

Part of the problem in touting these facilities as low barrier is people assume that the units will only be available to those with mental health and addiction issue. The reality is that most of the extreme cases will likely end up housed at Wesely Street it being the first under the MOU to come on line.  The reality is as people move towards treatment and other housing options you would likely see a variety of people being housed in the buildings which could be a good thing.

The primary goal of Housing First is to get the person off the street and then look at each individual and tailor supports to their need at that particular time and place in their life. The first step, getting the person(s) off the street or out of the revolving door of substandard accommodation, is immediately creating a better/safer lifestyle.

I was recently asked if this type of housing is actually able to get the monkey off people’s backs, or just provide more comfortable surroundings. The easy answer would be yes if looking at the Balmoral Hotel, converted to low barrier housing by CMHA in 2009, and Columbian Centre Society located on Rosstown Rd..  Both provide safe and supportive housing, the latter for over 25 years, and both have not resulted in degradation of their neighbourhoods or a drop in property values, but have proven beneficial, in the case of the Balmoral, to a reduction of crime.

Myself, I prefer to think of it not as more comfortable, though it is that, but that they are safer surroundings. Getting the proverbial monkey off someone’s back will depend on the willingness of the person to access supports. In some cases the safer more comfortable surroundings may be enough to promote change even without the need to look at things like detox or treatment. For many however these later two options as well as counselling will be necessary and by having the person in safe/comfortable housing they are far easier to bring to bear than if the person is cycling on and off the street.

Many housing first strategies, Toronto for example, rely on both putting people into existing accommodation through out the city and then lining up supports as well as providing new build housing .

When looking at existing accommodation; rent subsidies can be used to top income assistance rental rates which are usually far less than for most decent housing.  I know of nowhere where Income assistance rates alone will provide enough for a single person to find adequate safe accommodation and this is a problem.  Any housing first strategy must look at all means of getting people into housing and then doing it.  Rent subsidies are the quickest way to do so and should be the initial focus, and then moving on to new builds of various types of social and supported social housing.

The vast majority of people with substance abuse issues are and will be able to maintain housing.  The related behaviour issues, crime and violence are, in my belief, exhibited by the minority.  Some, being the most entrenched, may have to resort to petty crime to both maintain their habit as well as safe accommodation.  That being said there are many that are extremely vulnerable to the predators of society, the bottom feeders such as slumlords and pimps who profit from the misery they help and want to maintain.

One thing that has come out of the recent uproar by the HANA residents is that the scale of the project on Boundary/Dufferin has been reduced to 35 – 40 units from the initial 70 units.  Another property in the North End is being proposed but at this point the location has not been released.  Personally I think that 25 or 26 units would be a more ideal number and ensure greater success, a fact that was supported in a conversation I had with the Vancouver Island Health Authorities Marg Fraser at the HANA meeting.

While the Nanaimo Homeless Strategy may not be perfect; it is this writer’s opinion that the city needs to move forward with its Housing First Strategy.  It has been known for years that well-placed social investments are able to save government millions of dollars over the years as people became more self-reliant and are diverted away from high-cost public services like jails and emergency rooms.  Housing BC homeless could save $211M There are many easily accessible studies showing the savings provided.

Meaningful consultation must take place, and adjustments made as need be.  With the monies in place council must stay the course in the strategy moving forward as it will help to greatly alleviate Homelessness and will result in a healthier overall community.  If Council chooses not to do so we will be back at square one with no funding in place and none forthcoming in the foreseeable future


May 2008: A Response to Homelessness in Nanaimo: A housing first approach

July 2008Nanaimo’s Response to Homelessness Action Plan

November 12, 2008: Memorandum of understanding between BC Housing and City of Nanaimo signed.  Proposed properties are listed in appendix A

November 12, 2008 Press Release 160 NEW HOUSING UNITS FOR NANAIMO HOMELESS


This was for housing on 10th st.(First Nations) and Wesely St.(low barrier expected to be completed in 2011.  While I do recall stories in the local media with regard to the above I have been unable to find them.


This was to allocate funds to the rest of the housing outlined in the MOU.  Shortly after this announcement there was a community meeting scheduled in the Hospital Area.  While the townsite (dufferin/ boundary) housing did make it onto the agenda most thought the meeting was to do with crime, parking and other issues in the area.

I’m not sure when the City started publishing this, expect it was at some point this year, and while primarily with regard to the Wesely St. Location this document offers a pretty good general overview as well. Supported Housing OverviewAnother with regard to dufferin/Boundary has been published but I am unable to find the link to it.  This link for Frequently asked questions talks also about Wesley St. but offers answers to other questions as well.

September 14, 2010: First story published in the Nanaimo Daily news resulting in almost consistent letters and stories since.  If interested I have to the best of my ability included the above and everything from the Daily News, the Bulletin links tend to disappear so have not included them, on my blog at .

October 21st: HANA Meeting

October 25th: Council Meeting   October 25 Council Meeting 7:11pm Delegations pertaining to items not on the agenda.

Some councillors had a lot of good stuff to say, the delegation and Q&A was almost an hour long, but pay attention to Merv Unger’s comments 57:45 into the council meeting.   The guy is a social worker wannabee with really no idea what is going on.  He does however mention that there was notification 2 years ago.  Interestingly SAFER, a committee Merv Chairs, was the lead group when consultants were brought in to help develop Nanaimo’s Homeless & Harm Reduction Action Plan.

Merv was also responsible for making the motion to abandon rezoning, that would have allowed the 7-10 Club, Loaves and Fishes Food Bank and other community groups, to use the Harewood Firehall.  He did this the day after telling me that we were on the right page and should keep moving forward.  I would not be surprised if, to serve his own interests, he were to make a motion towards putting Nanaimo’s Homelessness Strategy on hold.