The Nanaimo community has received funding from the federal government for local initiatives that provide support to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rental supplements, the opening of warming centres, and mobile outreach to Indigenous homeless youth are just a few of the programs that have been funded over the past year.
Since April 2020, United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island and the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy have provided $1,254,632 in support in Nanaimo.
To ensure the funding reached those most in need quickly, United Way worked with a network of local service providers and the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition Community Advisory Board to distribute the funds. An initial $868,909 was allocated to 17 organizations delivering 25 programs. The remaining funds will be allocated to other programs working to end homelessness in the region.
The funding was provided through two streams:
Indigenous Homelessness – which provides funding to organizations that offer supports to meet the unique needs of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness in urban centres.
Designated Communities – which provided funding to organizations who help support people experiencing homelessness, while also working to reduce homelessness.
Some of these programs that have already been funded include:
Short-term rental supplements to keep people housed who have lost their job or experienced financial disruption because of COVID-19.
Shelter upgrades to help shelter spaces comply with COVID-19 health and safety regulations.
Two warming centres to give those living rough somewhere warm and dry to go in the day.
Re-opening existing services in keeping with COVID-19 health and safety regulations
Creating new transitional housing.
Providing urgent outreach services for substance use and addiction challenges.
Providing mobile outreach for Indigenous homeless youth.
Connecting Indigenous clients to health services, mental health support, and substance use treatment.
Offering basic need supports such as food hampers, personal hygiene supplies, winter gear, and PPE, etc.
Providing supports and training for front-line staff in the service sector to improve services to those experiencing homelessness.
A research study to collect data on the impacts of COVID-19 on homelessness, to learn from the community’s response and recommend improvements for ongoing service delivery.
The funds were issued to United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island (UWCNVI), as the Community Entity for the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy. The projects were reviewed and assessed with the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition’s Community Advisory Board.
Each year, Nanaimo receives approximately $616,624 to support local efforts to end homelessness through the Designated Communities stream and approximately $256,382 through the Indigenous Homelessness stream. The COVID-19 funding received since April 2020 was in addition to the annual funding.
At the core of Haven Society is a simple belief: “We believe all people are entitled to live a violence-free life.”
Those are the words of Dawn Clark who works at Haven Society – an organization that provides escape and support for those affected by family violence and other types of violence, as well as a variety of other services.
And while violence affects everyone, it disproportionately affects some more than others.
Haven Society clients are women, mothers and their children, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people of colour, Indigenous people, immigrants, those with physical disabilities, and those in poverty, to name a few.
“These are the folks who often receive negative social responses, and quite often aren’t able to articulate what they need from the powers that be,” says Clark, the director of education, quality improvement and special projects at Haven.
First incorporated in 1978, Haven Society started as an answer to the growing awareness that violence and abuse within the family was a reality for many women and children in the community.
To provide a safe place for these women and children, community volunteers took them in to their own homes.
Now more than 40 years later, Haven Society provides a constellation of services, says Clark, including a transition house, a safe house, counselling services, a community victim services program that helps victims navigate the legal system, outreach, counselling to children who have experienced violence, rent supplements and subsidies, and much more.
Since 2013, Haven has also operated in the Parksville/Qualicum area, opening Haven House there in collaboration with the Society for Organized Services (SOS).
Working from feminist principles, Haven seeks to promote the integrity and safety of women, children, youth and families, and the development of a respectful and healthy community.
It also serves as a link to services offered by other organizations.
“I’m really proud that somebody can walk in through the front door here and not really know what they need, but we can support them in trying to figure that out,” says Clark. Whether the person needs supports through Haven, another organization or a combination of organizations, Haven is there to help, she says.
“We care for the community, we care for the people who walk through our doors.”
That willingness to work with other organizations is reflected in their longstanding membership with the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition, having been involved with the group even before that was its name.
Haven is an important representative at the table, as violence is absolutely linked to homelessness, says Clark.
“When families are experiencing violence, when women and children, for instance, come into our transition house or our safe home … the security of their housing is at risk because they’ve left their family home due to violence,” says Clark.
“Once you leave your home because of a violent situation, you are at risk of becoming homeless.”
By being at the NHC table, Haven is able to have the needs of their clients heard.
“If I’m a mom, I’ve left [the family home] and I’ve got a couple of kids, I need to find a home, I need to put food on the table, I need to clothe them before I can even lift my gaze to think about other things. I need to make sure everybody is safe,” says Clark.
And with such low rental rates in Nanaimo as well as Parksville and Qualicum, a single mom with kids is rarely a landlords first choice, she says.
That’s one reason why what Haven Society does is so important.
If you are looking for a way to support your community, volunteering or donating to Haven Society is a great way to do it.
The 2020 Point-in-Time Count reported that 61% of those experiencing homelessness in Nanaimo are also struggling with mental health. People with mental ill-health are more susceptible to factors that can lead to homelessness.
– They may not have the capacity for sustained, full-time employment; – They may withdraw from family and friends; – They may struggle with resiliency and resourcefulness; – They may experience impaired judgement.
A common statement we hear is “I don’t understand why some people struggling with mental health don’t take their medications.”The idea being that, once well, the person would be able to find employment, a home and get off of the streets. Here are some common reasons people suffering from mental ill-health may not take their medications:
Fear and shame There’s stigma around mental health struggles and taking medication means acknowledging a shaming disorder. Taking medication can seem like an admission of defeat, admitting they couldn’t handle it on their own and they need help.
Unawareness Many people are unaware that they’re experiencing mental health struggles. Life events such as grief, trauma, or feeling stuck can feel very similar to depression, bi-polar, personality disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They may not know that their experience is more than just a really hard time.
As we learn more about mental health and how it evolves throughout our lives, we’re understanding more about how significant life events can cause changes in the brain. These changes can lead to life-long PTSD, depression or other mental ill-health. Many people still believe the myth that you’re either born with mental ill-health or not.
Lack of access Many people experiencing homelessness don’t have access to medication and/or health care. For example, they may not have a cell phone to call for help or make an appointment with a doctor. They may not have reliable transportation or aren’t able to pay for bus fare. People experiencing homelessness are fighting to address their most basic needs; staying warm and finding a meal. Making and attending a doctor’s appointment is often a luxury they don’t have.
Side effects Side effects of some antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicine and psychotropic drugs can include sedation, insomnia, drowsiness, dry mouth, weight gain and sexual issues. If someone is already hesitant about taking medication, these side effects can be a powerful deterrent.
They feel better Many people take medication until they feel better and the symptoms disappear. However, with many mental health disorders, once patients stop taking the medication the symptoms may return. Life events such as the death of a loved one or stress at work could also cause symptoms to re-appear.
Misunderstanding It’s difficult to talk about personal details with a doctor or counsellor, particularly one that a person doesn’t have a relationship with. Patients also may not understand the potential benefits of the medicine, the nature of the side effects or the time it will take to see results. Physicians and counsellors may may not see their patients regularly enough to make an accurate diagnoses.
More challenges Not only does homelessness have a direct impact on health, it makes it difficult or impossible to obtain medication and to adhere to medical treatment. The stress of experiencing homelessness may amplify mental illness disorders. People struggling with mental illness while facing homelessness encounter more barriers to employment and tend to be in poorer health than other people experiencing homelessness. 
To make it even more difficult, many services have long waitlists and limited availability. This can be a major barrier to getting the consistent support that recovery from mental ill-health requires.
Youth between the ages of 13-25 make up 20% of the homeless population in Canada . In Nanaimo, we’re seeing increasing numbers of vulnerable youth experiencing homelessness. Of the people facing homelessness surveyed in the 2020 Nanaimo Point-In-Time Count, 10.7% of respondents were under the age of 25. An estimated 60 to 65 youth are living on the street. There are many reasons that lead young people into homelessness.
Family and relationship breakdowns are one of the main reasons young people become homeless. Many youths leave home after years of physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, strained relationships, addiction issues in the family and parental neglect. Young people often become homeless because it’s safer to leave home than to stay.
Conflict with parents or caregivers was a major cause of homelessness for 74% of youth, and was a contributing factor for 92% of youth, according to the 2014 Leaving Home report. 
Aging out of the child welfare system is another cause of youth homelessness. When they reach the age of 19, youth are no longer supported. Without adequate planning, housing and income support, some youth living in residential or institutional placements become homeless when they’re discharged.
The 2020 Nanaimo Point-in-Time Count confirmed that foster care is a precipitating factor leading youth into homelessness. In Nanaimo, of those who indicated they had been in foster care, 39% were homeless within five years or less of leaving.
LIVING IN POVERTY
Many young people who become homeless come from families living in poverty. The families may indeed be supportive and caring, but may simply not have the means to take care of the young person and they may be forced to leave the home.
Some youth become homeless with their families, after the family suffers financial crises resulting from lack of affordable housing, limited employment opportunities or insufficient wages. These youth may be separated from their family by shelter, transitional housing or child welfare policies.
MENTAL HEALTH AND ADDICTION CHALLENGES
Youth may be pushed into homelessness because of their own undiagnosed or untreated mental health or addictions challenges or because of their parents’ mental health and addictions challenges. This is concerning because the sufferings of being homeless only exacerbate these challenges.
LGBTQ2S+ youth experience higher levels of homelessness than their peers. It’s estimated that between 25-40% of homeless youth in Canada identify as LGBTQ2S+ compared to 10% of non-homeless youth.
Many sexual and gender diverse youth grow up in homes with family members that are not accepting, supportive or affirming. Often, coming out to family leads to homelessness. Some youth may run away from home because of abuse or discrimination from their family members. Others may be thrown out of their family home.
When young people experience discrimination of any kind, it impacts their options and access to employment, educational opportunities, and their ability to access the services they need. This contributes to an increased risk of falling into homelessness, particularly when combined with other challenges the young person may be experiencing in the home.
Challenges for youth
Youth homelessness is complex and is usually the result of a combination of factors.
Experiencing homelessness at any age is extremely difficult. Homeless youth are especially vulnerable to physical and mental health issues, overdoses, abuse and exploitation without a stable support system.