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Reimer questions Nelson City Police response to homeless outdoor space

Suzy Hamilton
By Suzy Hamilton
January 16th, 2015

While Pastor Jim Reimer sees some positives in a police report released mid-December for the Nelson Housing Committee, he takes issue with the overall direction in the report.

In October, Reimer, who runs Our Daily Bread community kitchen and the SHARE used store, asked Nelson City council for a $5,000 grant to conduct a feasibility study on a campground for homeless individuals.

The city deferred,  referring the request to the Nelson Housing Committee who asked the Nelson City Police for their input.

“It is our position that the request has merit, and may eventually be a required strategy,” the report said.

“…we have “identified” the problem; we have all agreed to “own” that problem and to “solve” it, so perhaps it is time to “do” something about it. That “something” should not be a “Band-Aid” solution.

“That “something” should, ideally, focus on the immediate and real needs of the twenty to thirty incumbent homeless persons living in Nelson on a continuing (not transient) basis,” wrote Holland. 

Holland went on to elaborate that council should engage in a decision making and planning process that is similar to how the Nelson Police Department engage in “realty-based” policing.

“That style of enforcement is simply “doing the best we can with the resources available, to work with the community to achieve and sustain long-term solutions to identified problems.

  “A study such as that proposed would be ‘putting the cart before the horse’, would not be in accordance with the Nelson Housing Committee’s mandate of identifying supportive and affordable housing, and could very well distract us from the mission at hand and dilute the focus and energy required for us to address our real needs.

“If we should fall short of meeting everyone’s needs, only then should we turn our minds to an outdoor shelter,” the report said.

Furthermore, “an outdoor shelter has never been recommended by any qualified health professional as being a means to eradicate homelessness. In fact, from our perspective, a safe outdoor space enhances the likelihood that the issue of homelessness will remain in a status quo condition. Nelson can do better than that.”

But Reimer, whose church plans to provide 40 units of affordable housing in two years on their property, says it is “immoral” to wait until housing is available to keep the homeless safe.

“Their (NPD) solution in the meantime is to do nothing,” he said. “It is morally wrong and irresponsible to say we need housing but in the meantime, let them sleep outside.”

Reimer said he agrees with Holland  to “do the best we can with the resources available”, which is what he said a secure outdoor space (SOS) would accomplish.

“We need an SOS for the safety of both the individuals and the residents of Nelson.

“Until individuals can have peace of mind from the anxiety of sleeping in an unprotected space, they cannot address their other issues.” said Reimer, citing lack of finances, lack of housing, mental illness and drug addiction as factors contributing to the homeless situation.

Reimer believes that individuals living in a secure, managed space that provides clean water and toilet facilities will police the camp themselves, just as they do in the soup kitchen.

“They don’t want the criminal element, they want safety,” he said.

He disagrees that an outdoor space presents a health issue, as stated in the report.

“NOT having a secure outdoor space is a health issue,” he said.

He is looking to successful models such as Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, which began as a tent village. Or the Housing First program in Alberta that assigns support workers to homeless individuals.

The Alberta program claims to save thousands of dollars in health, housing  and policing costs by giving individuals their own advocate.

There is no such program like this in BC, said Reimer.

“There are always going to be people who don’t fit into the mold. Why not give these people the same rights as the people with money?”

A secure outdoor space, said Reimer, is  “not a solution, but a step.”  It also would give the residents a permanent address so they can receive welfare.

“There’s a lot of barriers they have to address.”

The Nelson Committee on Homelessness met  January 14 to review the police report.

Reimer hopes that the committee will move to determine how many people in Nelson are living outside and move forward on what is needed to provide a secure outdoor space.

In the report, Holland said “We are reluctant to elaborate on a secure outdoor space at this time.”

But in the event that the proposal becomes a reality, the police offered recommendations, such as  that the space be located outside the city away from schools and playgrounds, that government and residents be consulted, that a the term of stay be limited, that there is only one secure space available at a time, that waste removal and cooking facilities be provided, and that a code of conduct be required.

“It should also be considered that there will be individuals who do not wish to avail themselves of the opportunity to live in a secure outdoor site, in which case we may find ourselves in the same predicament that we presently find ourselves in, which is “homeless persons scattered throughout the community, ”  the report concluded.

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