Violence and homelessness: vulnerable residents at risk

Oct 2021 | Announcements Homelessness

People experiencing homelessness are already at a higher risk of violence and victimization than housed individuals, but a recent unprovoked, targeted and violent attack on a person experiencing homelessness in Nanaimo—the second to happen in just three months—speaks to disturbing levels of dehumanization in our community.

Nanaimo residents recently witnessed a deeply upsetting act of violence against a vulnerable member of our community. A man experiencing homelessness was deliberately attacked, run over with a vehicle and pepper-sprayed, with no apparent provocation. 

While shocking and appalling, facing acts of hate is a reality of life for many people who experience homelessness. We also know that a strong connection exists between domestic violence and homelessness. Without the security of a place to call home, there is a much higher risk to one’s personal safety and a negative impact on mental and physical health.

Let us also not forget that in June 2021, Nanaimo saw the homicide of Amy Watts, a young woman facing homelessness who was working to rebuild her life. While struggling with mental health issues and addictions issues, Amy was undergoing treatment and acting as an advocate for other vulnerable people in Nanaimo. She was the victim of an extreme act of violence.

Nanaimo appears to be at a breaking point with the homelessness crisis. Both housed and unhoused residents are struggling to cope with entangled problems of housing unaffordability, an overwhelmed and under-resourced frontline community, and off-the-charts drug toxicity and opioid overdoses. These crises hurt us individually and we are further weakened in our response when we hurt each other. As a community, we’re dealing with incredible systemic issues that have individual impacts, especially for those living in poverty. We must not allow frustration and anger with systemic problems to translate to interpersonal hate crimes and violence.

To solve these crises, we need to address the root causes, not punish those caught in a cycle of inequity. Nanaimo’s new Health & Housing Action Plan proposes 80 actions to improve health and housing equity for all while making better use of our strained health, justice and social service resources. Learn more about the Health & Housing Action Plan.

People facing homelessness are at greater risk of experiencing acts of violence

The very nature of experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness puts people in riskier situations where they are more likely to be victims of acts of violence. This is part of a disturbing trend across Canada. If you search “violence against homeless,” there is no shortage of news stories about vulnerable people facing hate, discrimination and assault.

A 2009 study that explored experiences of violence among individuals who are homeless surveyed 500 people in five cities across the United States. The study found that nearly half of homeless individuals had experienced violence and that the longer someone faces homelessness, the higher their risk of experiencing a violent attack.

The same study found the rate of violence victimization in the homeless population to be between 14% and 21%. This is extremely disproportionate when compared to the 2% violence victimization rate of the general population. 

Youth homelessness and violence

A 2009 survey led by York University and Guelph University interviewed 244 homeless youth in Toronto about their life on the street and experiences of criminal victimization. The findings showed that youth who are vulnerable due to homelessness are more often victims of violence: 

“While young people in Canada are more likely to be victims of crime than any other age group, homeless youth experience rates of criminal victimization that are much greater. 

The results of our survey show incredibly high rates of criminal victimization amongst the street youth population, with over 76% reporting at least one instance in the previous 12 months and 63.3% reporting being victims of violent crime at least once. This is an extremely high rate of criminal victimization when compared to housed youth in the general population.”

Learn more about youth homelessness in Canada

Domestic violence as a path to homelessness

According to Homeless Hub, domestic violence can be defined as physical, sexual or psychological harm by a current/former partner or spouse as well as by other family members, or by a partner’s family members.

Physical and sexual violence are leading causes of homelessness for women and youth. Homeless Hub cites a study that found 38% of women experiencing domestic violence report becoming homeless immediately after separating from their partner. There is a strong connection between domestic violence and homeless women and youth.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation provides facts about gender-based violence in Canada: 

The Government of Canada’s Literature Review: Family Violence and Homelessness cites a survey of more than 500 high-risk and street involved teenagers in several B.C. communities that found 87% of females and 65% of males had been abused physically or sexually. 

In Nanaimo, these important organizations provide housing and support for women who want to leave abusive situations, though there is currently more demand than available beds: 

Haven Society 

Haven Society’s mission is to promote the integrity and safety of women, children, youth and families and the development of a respectful and healthy community.  As a leading anti-violence organization operating from feminist principles, Haven Society will achieve this mission by providing a range of services, public education and advocacy.

Cedar Woman House

Cedar Woman House is a 24/7 staffed unique and innovative purpose-built facility for Indigenous women and children who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing violence. This facility is designed around Indigenous values and cultural priorities and programming. The Cedar Woman’s House serves the immediate need for emergency shelter and services for women and children in the region of the Hul’q’umin’um’-speaking people.

Nanaimo in Crisis

Clearly, there are tensions in our community with growing visibility of people experiencing homelessness on the streets. The numbers keep increasing, with the most recent Point-in-Time Homeless Count estimating there are near 600 people in Nanaimo without housing.  

While there is frustration as we face this crisis, there is never an excuse for targeted violence, especially against our most marginalized residents. What we need is to respond as community members and compassionate individuals. We need to understand the many root causes of homelessness, addiction and poverty and to ask levels of government for more investments in affordable housing, safe shelters, and supportive programs.

With the strength of our unity, we can help those who need it most and hopefully save others from horrific and violent crimes. Let this devastating experience be a beacon, drawing attention to the urgent need for action to end Nanaimo’s homelessness crisis.

Learn more about the impact of homelessness in Canada and our economy.

If you ever see a person in danger, being attacked or victimized, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Resources to help you

Do You Need Help?

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Or search HelpSeeker for access to over 770 services, programs and resources in Nanaimo.