Nelson street outreach project lacks business input

A meeting was held last week to introduce Nelson's new street outreach team.

Tanya Finley of Finley's Irish Bar and Grill and Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce executive director Tom Thomson talk with newly-hired street outreach worker Jeremy Kelly at a meeting Thursday night for the business community

A meeting held on Thursday, organized by the Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce to introduce business people to a newly-hired street outreach team for Nelson, was not well attended by businesses.

Of the approximately 50 people in attendance, only about 15 (less than a third) were business owners. The rest were politicians and people from the social services community. The business people were asked to write their responses to survey questions posted on charts on the wall, but very few did. In the question period after the presentation, there was only a small handful of questions from business people. An hour into the evening, which consisted of a presentation and an open house, all but three of the business people were gone, while about 20 non-business people were still discussing and socializing.

In its fundraising campaign to hire the outreach workers, the Nelson Street Culture Collaborative raised just under $100,000. The local business community contributed 1.8 per cent of that. (See the full funding breakdown at the end of this article.)

The Nelson Street Culture Collaborative consists of 36 people from police, social services, faith, mental health, business, local government, education, health, and public works sectors. It was set up to respond to those who depend on the street for survival.

Two members of the business community who stayed at the meeting were Tanya Finley, the owner of Finley’s Irish Bar and Grill, and Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce executive director Tom Thomson. Finley told the Star that in the past year and a half of street culture collaborative meetings, she and Thomson have alternated as the only business people in the meetings. They felt a bit like fish out of water.

Rona Park, who coordinates the street culture collaborative, says more business people would have been welcome.

‘Activists for the business sector’

“Tom and I do stand out because we are from the business community,” Finley said, “whereas they are from the social sector, and if you have those two types of backgrounds in the room there are always going to be differences and challenges. The exciting part about this process is that we are here to bridge those gaps. So we are here as activists for the business sector, to try and help the social sector understand it.”

Finley said she was the only member of the collaborative that is not paid to be at the meetings. Everyone connected with social services, police, health, and other agencies were there as part of their jobs. This is a deterrent to business involvement, she said.

Fear of controversy

Another possible reason is fear of controversy.

“If they say something that is somewhat controversial,” Thomson said, “or if you approached someone on the street and got the wrong response, it might affect their business. So sometimes a business person will say something to the chamber executive director or privately to people they know, but they don’t want to say it publicly. That is one of the challenges in getting people engaged, not just on this issue but on others as well.”

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Dale Donaldson, the owner of Mallard’s in Nelson and Castlegar, was at Thursdays meeting and he agreed with Thomson.

“They would rather just be invisible. But there are times when you have to step up and voice your opinion.”

Donaldson said business people may feel out of their element when dealing with social issues.

“It is not what we do. We do not have training for that. We come, we open our doors, hopefully we sell some things, we pay our staff and our taxes. It is just that in Nelson there seems to be another thing we have to deal with, and hopefully with this new committee, that will alleviate itself.”

Nelson is different

The question of whether or not there are more social services in Nelson than in other communities, and whether these services actually attract people to Nelson, has always been a controversial and somewhat taboo subject in public discussions. Donaldson broached this in Thursday’s meeting and he says he “took some heat for that afterwards.”

Asked by the Star later to clarify what he meant, he said, “Nelson is a cool place and people gravitate towards it. I grew up in Nelson, my family has been here for over a hundred years. It’s different. I live in Castlegar now, and things are much different there. We do not have the same demands on social services in Castlegar as we do in Nelson.

“Nelson has to deal with more than their fair share of social issues,” he continued, “and we need more support from the province and the federal government to help with that. We cannot always rely on police to deal with things, and we need more mental health workers and street workers on the ground. A lot of it is left to the city and that is not fair.”

Donaldson said he thinks isolated incidents might make the problem seem bigger than it is.

On the right track

“If we deal with certain individuals and certain issues, it sounds like we are on the right track. I really hope it does alleviate some of the problems because those people who are viewed as being an issue, for the most part they need help.”

Asked how such people affect his business, Donaldson said he has had very few problems, but the main issue seems to be in the area in front of CIBC.

A banker’s view

Gerry Cartwright, manager of client experience at CIBC, was at the meeting and told the Star that in a few instances the bank calls the police, but otherwise he goes out and talks to people hanging out in front of his bank because he wants to build relationships.

“I introduce myself and say these are some of the concerns we have had, letting them know what the feedback is.

“I tell them I get that it is a great place to hang out, but maybe you could move on and not spend so much time, allow people to pass through the sidewalk. I mostly do not get negative feedback from that, mostly it is, ‘OK we’ll move on,’ and they take a few minutes and move on, or they will be more respectful and not be so spread out. That is a big piece of it. We have clients who are older and don’t want to run the gauntlet when there is such a large group, and then also people with small kids.”

Cartwright said he realizes there is no bylaw to support this approach.

“We just get them to understand we are trying to run a business and they can’t spend nine hours a day here.”

Cartwright likes the idea of the street outreach workers.

“I think it’s great. From what I have heard, there are a lot of people who are frustrated. I think they were hoping there is going to be an overnight fix and that tomorrow is going to be a brand new world, but is is going to take some time, I get that. It is a year-long experiment to see what works. It is good to be getting business input like this.”

More business feedback needed

Rona Park, the executive director of the Nelson Community Services Society which is managing the outreach worker program, says that they have always wanted more participation by the business community but have not known how to go about it.

“Now that the project is underway and we know that the business community is a key component to the success of this project, we want to find ways of meeting regularly with the community to give updates and get feedback, and we are looking for feedback from the business community on how those meetings can

Funding sources

Funding for one year of the outreach worker project has come from:

Federal Homelessness Prevention Strategy through the Nelson Committee on Homelessness: $46,720.

Salvation Army: $30,000.

Nelson Community Services: $5,000.

• City of Nelson and Area E: $12,000

Donations from local businesses: $1,780.

Rotary Club: $1,000.

In-kind donations from the Interior Health Authority and Francophone Association of the West Kootenay.

Shortfall: $3,500.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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