Many former tent city residents in Nanaimo moved to modular housing. A year later, reaction in city is mixed

Tina Crandon says it was like winning the jackpot when she moved into her new home at Newcastle Place in Nanaimo, B.C. 

Crandon was one of the estimated 300 people living in Nanaimo's tent city, when it was shut down by a B.C. Supreme Court order one year ago. About half of the residents, including Crandon, were moved to two temporary, modular supportive housing complexes.

One is Newcastle Place, a collection of one-storey modular units that resemble shipping containers. The units on Terminal Avenue are painted blue, with wooden porches and house 78 people.

There, each resident is provided with a room, private bathroom and shower as well as meals and access to social services.

For Crandon, 52, the secure housing arrangement means more than just a warm bed. She can finally get treatment for serious health issues, including a failing liver.

Sandra Fox, the assistant manager at Newcastle Place, said access to health care is key for the residents. She can also help residents get into detox, and provide social supports like therapeutic gardening and arts and crafts programs. 

Fox said the sense of community is also strong. "There was three or four clients and one staff coordinating some shoes for a new resident," she said.

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Newcastle Place is one of two temporary housing complexes in Nanaimo. They've brought security to people like Crandon, but some Nanaimo residents and businesses aren't happy. They say the modular housing complexes have led to an increase in drug activity and street disorder in the areas where they're located.

Mayor Leonard Krog has also chimed in. Krog says Nanaimo's housing issues have begun to weigh on residents.

"The frustration level is high, and the reservoir of compassion in this community is drying up. I call it compassion fatigue."

Krog wants the province and federal government to provide solutions to the addiction, housing, and mental health challenges that lead to homelessness.

Meanwhile, Fred MacDonald, who lives a few blocks from Newcastle Place with his wife and granddaughter, said he lives in a "state of hyper-vigilance." 

MacDonald said he's found needles in his yard and witnessed open drug deals and sexual activity.

The Island Crisis Care Society, which operates Newcastle Place, has increased the security patrols it sends through the neighbourhood, which MacDonald said he appreciates. But he said the fact it needs security in the first place, as well as a security gate and high fencing, is a sign the housing complex doesn't belong.

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At a hardware store just two blocks from the modular housing, staff say they deal with theft, garbage, and threats of violence on a regular basis. In the mornings, they have to ask people to move away from the building. 

Employee Brandon Hawksworth said he's not sure what the answer is: "There is really no way to solve it unless you get rid of it in my opinion.

"But then you move it somewhere else it's going to be someone else's problem."

Restricting visitors 

At another temporary housing complex — called Nikao — also built to accommodate former tent city residents, managers have stopped allowing visitors. 

Sharon MacDonald, who oversees both of the Nanaimo properties for Pacifica Housing, says refusing visitors has helped staff keep control of the premises and maintain a good relationship with neighbours.

"That's really limited the complaints that we're getting, helped the site really settle down, and for people to dig in and feel more at home." 

But the visitor ban is tough for people who want to see family members in the housing complex.

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Donna Davis has a loved one at Nikao with serious addiction issues. Because of the visitor ban, she's only seen him since October. The policy, combined with the security fencing, makes residents feel like they're in jail.

"It's hard for him, you know," said Davis. "He loved it when I would come down and sit for a while and talk and meet some of his friends."

There are still an estimated 600 to 800 people who are homeless in Nanaimo despite the construction of two housing complexes for tent city residents and other supportive and affordable housing the province has helped build.