Nelson’s Stepping Stones shelter is already routinely turning desperate people away at the door, and staff are anticipating the situation will continue to worsen as we head into the winter months.
“We just turned away a family with young kids because there was no space,” frontline worker Ted Campeau told the Star. “It fluctuates by the hour, but these days we’re mostly at capacity. We know people are sleeping in doorways and in bushes, in the forest around town. It’s scary.”
The least they can do, in many instances, is provide their clients with clean blankets to keep them warm. But they’re running low on those too — which is why they’re embarking on a blanket drive, encouraging the community to donate whatever they can.
“People come all night long looking for blankets, and it’s very hard for people to stay dry. We’re getting low right now. We’re also always desperate for camping gear, because that’s something people can use to survive through the winter.”
What about housing? According to Campeau, it’s just not there.
“I look every week to see what housing’s available for folks. People have $375 they’re provided for shelter allowance — I dare you or anyone else to find a rental at that price. You just won’t find it.”
That means quite often they’re encouraging people to move elsewhere.
“Even people who have lived here a long time, we try to dissuade them from looking here. We ask them if they’d be interested in living somewhere else because the chances of finding housing here? It’s impossible. The issue is there’s no affordable housing in this town.”
Campeau believes there are good services available, with more addictions treatment coming, but even the housing their clients can afford is being phased out or renovated, putting it outside their financial means.
All of this is happening while the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) considers implementing a poverty reduction plan — the last province in the country to do so. Nelson city council feels government action is long overdue in addressing the crisis.
“The problem is moving into the middle class,” said city councillor Valerie Warmington, coordinator of Nelson At Its Best, while describing their local poverty reduction strategy.
“Full time, working people are not able to make ends meet. So many issues facing our communities are provincial responsibilities.”
Councillors from Vancouver, Powell River and Victoria have all expressed concern, saying the crisis has affected both cities and small rural communities.
“With a below one per cent vacancy rate, the intense competition for housing translates into people with means getting housing while people without means don’t and end up sleeping rough,” Powell River councillor Rob Southcott told UBCM.
Michael Prevost, councillor from Terrace, said he’s seen rents increase from $500 to $1,500 and says “we are not prepared for the social challenges of a resource boom. We are failing our citizens. A poverty reduction plan for BC would allow businesses and community members to address basic needs around housing, health, employment and food security.”
But even with a poverty reduction plan, it will still be an uphill battle to house the many Nelson people who don’t have a bed to sleep in. Campeau said they do their best, but still people are being forced into unsuitable and dangerous situations.
“The majority of our clients have mental health issues, and quite profound ones. A lot of them have physical disabilities and are unable to work. We have people in their 70s, 80s, who are sleeping in their cars. People are going wherever they can,” he said.
And according to a B.C. Supreme Court ruling, these people are considered to be in constant danger.
“We see people living from shelter to shelter, these very unwell people, and they’re constantly at risk. Especially women, we see everything from young women to elderly women, they’re in danger,” said Campeau.
But he loves what he does, and appreciates the relationships he’s created.
“These people are survivors. They’re amazing, inspiring people to be around,” said Campeau. “We need to help them any way we can.”