Nelson’s street people — who are they? (with video)

The street culture collaborative wants to understand those who rely on the street for survival.

Rona Park from Bill Metcalfe on Vimeo.

First of three parts on the work of the Nelson Street Culture Collaborative

The Nelson Street Culture Collaborative has made a list of the characteristics of people in Nelson who rely on the street to survive. They did this by sharing stories among their members about their experiences with the “street population.”

What they discovered, according to group co-ordinator Rona Park, “cut through a lot of assumptions people have, perhaps assumptions that they are all people with mental health or addiction issues, or that they are all homeless, and in fact we find they are probably mostly not that. They are a very multi-faceted group of individuals, like any other group. Which means the response needs to be diverse. It’s not a cookie-cutter situation.”

The collaborative consists of 34 people from the social services, business, health, mental health, education, police, government and church sectors in Nelson.

“All the people involved in the collaborative are at the table because they have a specific interest in being a more caring community toward this population,” Park says. “Nobody thinks they should be run out of town. Everybody there is saying, ‘Let’s understand them better.’”

The list is part of a larger initiative in which the group intends to create a more effective and supportive response to the street population. Their progress on that, and a report on their recent presentation to Nelson city council, will be detailed in an upcoming story in this series.

Who are they?

• Roughly 20 to 30 individuals rely on Nelson’s street culture to survive.

• They are locals, having lived more than six months in Nelson, most for many years.

• Not all are homeless, but many are without a permanent home or are at risk of homelessness.

• Some prefer the freedom of “living rough” and prefer not to be housed at all.

• Many use public park areas, rest spots, and other city amenities as a place to eat, sleep and live.

• Many live with active addictions or mental health disorders, or both (one to five per cent live with some form of complex trauma leading to depression, personality disorder, or anxiety; another one per cent live with a severe and persistent mental illness such as schizophrenia or manic depression).

• Many live with unresolved childhood abuse and trauma.

• Many have sought treatment for their addictions but lacked sufficient support when returning to community and easily fell prey to the drug/alcohol scene once again.

• Some have been hospitalized, often more than once, in a psychiatric unit for stabilization.

• Many live with chronic health conditions that require ongoing treatment.

• Many live with poor general physical and dental health.

• Some live with brain injuries or developmental disabilities.

• Many are lonely and feel invisible, have few friends, and feel isolated from the community.

• Some are parents trying to raise their children or maintain relationships with their children.

• Many have been in this situation for many years.

• Many began on a successful path in life and did well for extended periods of time.

• Many are unable to work due to poor health, and many live on social assistance or no money at all.

• Many have made use of the homeless shelter and subsidized housing but require a supported housing environment to maintain housing.

• Several live in “housing first” type programs such as TAP, SHIP, and Lakeside Place.

• Many are able to work and would like to but lack the skills, are too unwell, have no regular work history, can only work at a job temporarily, or other similar barriers.

• Some have sought and accepted small jobs from business owners.

• Many are very talented, intelligent, articulate, and respectful individuals with great insight into the human condition; many are great artists, musicians, and conversationalists.

• Many are simply hungry, angry, lonely, and tired.

• Some act aggressively toward others as a way to protect themselves; aggression or irritability also shows up if a person is hungry, tired, having a period of mentally instability, high, drunk, or scared.

• Many have considered and/or attempted suicide as a way out of their situation.

• Some feel a sense of hopelessness; others feel some sense of hope, dignity, potential, or readiness for change.

• Many regularly use local free meal programs, food banks, mental health services, counseling and outreach programs, the library, and other supports like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and churches.

• Many take medications to help stabilize their mental illness and receive support from a case manager or mental health outreach worker.

• Some have had such bad experiences with the health and mental health systems that they simply refuse to get help when they need it.

• Many feel let down, abandoned, misunderstood, and abused by police, mental health, and other community service providers; when they are ready for help or need help, they experience a fragmented system, waiting lists, and/or a lot of red tape to get any immediate service.

• Some panhandle and/or busk to support themselves or as a way to be visible and engage with other people to not feel so isolated.

Barriers to interaction

The street culture collaborative group was formed more than a year ago, initially catalyzed by the debate around mental health and policing in Nelson, and given new impetus by city council’s controversial attempts last year to regulate panhandling. The group has developed concrete strategies which they brought to city council on March 21. Those will be discussed in the second article in this series.

Along with the above list, the group has also created a list of the barriers to effective interaction with, and support of, people on the street, as follows:

• Insufficient information about mental illness and addiction and about how to respond appropriately to challenging encounters with some individuals, particularly police, library staff, and business owners.

• Lack of clarity amongst stakeholders about who to call when a difficult situation arises on the streets — police are often called as a default but feel least well equipped to deal with these behaviors.

• No designated multi-disciplinary response team exists; crises are dealt with mostly in service silos.

• Without a coordinated community multi-disciplinary response team, there is some duplication of roles and some deflection of responsibility.

• The street culture population and their specific needs are not well known to most service providers.

• Other than police and hospital emergency, services are not available after hours and on weekends.

• The local mental health and addictions office has a waiting list and struggles to meet the demand.

• Most community social services programs are at capacity and have waiting lists and no resources to expand services.

• Housing vacancy rate is at or close to zero and there is very little affordable, appropriate housing; and people living on social assistance have only $375 per month for rent — it’s impossible to rent anywhere in Nelson with that.

• While there are housing outreach workers, there are no street outreach workers.

• Up until very recently, the Nelson Police Department was unable to designate a beat officer.

• There are no detox or treatment residential beds in the region; the only day treatment program is in Castlegar.

• There is no temporary work program that can quickly put people into jobs for a day, or a few days, etc.

• There is no one-stop location where street people can get multiple needs met — existing services are fragmented and require people to go to several locations to get the services they need.

Related stories in the Nelson Star

New collaboration proposed for policing and mental health (June 18, 2015)

Nelson police, health authority, politicians meet about ‘street culture’ (August 29, 2015)

Responding to ‘those who rely on street culture to survive’ (October 15, 2015)

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