On July 4, 2018, a 27-year-old man was stabbed at Nanaimo’s Discontent City, leaving him with life-threatening injuries. The attacker, an 18-year-old man wielding a knife, was taken into custody shortly after police were contacted at around 7:30 pm that evening. He was charged with one account of aggravated assault. The incident was the first of two stabbing occurrences over the summer, with multiple additional incidents of general violence having been reported since the makeshift habitation was organized. The severity of other crimes related to the tent city varies from panhandling and public intoxication to theft and threats.
Discontent City, which at its peak sheltered more than 300 people, was implemented as a statement to city officials about the growing issue of homelessness in Nanaimo. The occupancy of the lot at 1 Port Place has become an increasingly controversial issue that has reached nearly everyone in the city. The issue extends to all walks of life, including loved ones who are struggling with mental health, low-income, and unaffordable rent. It’s a topic that everyone seems to have an opinion on; and the varying degrees of misinformation, prejudice, and fear accompanying its existence have perpetuated a divisive debate among Nanaimo residents.
The challenging nature of the ideological and sociological problems brought to the public eye by Nanaimo’s tent city has raised more questions than it has provided any solutions.
Shortly after the July stabbing, The City of Nanaimo officially filed a petition to the Supreme Court for a statutory injunction to remove Discontent City and its residents. On September 21, the injunction was granted, giving campers 21 days to vacate the property. Justice Ronald Skolrood cited “ongoing safety issues” as a major concern, along with a deteriorating leadership structure within the camp.
The issues acknowledged by Skolrood’s ruling come amidst growing local safety concerns among Nanaimo residents. The attack in July provoked a demand for increased security in the downtown location where the tent city is located. Individuals who work, live, shop, and commute through the surrounding area claim to have encountered an increase in harassment and many report they no longer feel safe in their community as a result of the concentration of crime downtown. The testimonies of these individuals are invaluable for their illustration of how Discontent City has affected business, safety, and general quality of life in the area.
Understandably, it was challenging to find respondents who were willing to speak publicly on the topic. Paladin Security declined to comment altogether—and during our brief conversation, a distressed woman approached the three of us: “I’ve seen it twice now, and I don’t want to see it again. Keep those junkies outside away from my kids.”
The reluctance of employees to comment is rooted in being legally prohibited from speaking at the risk of falsely representing their business. As a result, the people I interviewed have decided to remain anonymous; and although many of them had much to say about their experience as employees, I agreed to conceal their identities to avoid conflict. Their stories are important. Here are just a few of them.
Port Place Shopping Centre
“Shoplifting has definitely increased. We went from three shoplifting events a week to 10 a day. Security has improved though. They’re keeping a closer watch. We also requested to move the bus stop, because employees were seeing lots of needles. It was actually relocated the next day, to a safer location.”
- Alfred, employee
“I haven’t encountered anything bad. My friend who lives on Albert Street says less people have been making noise and sleeping outside his building, though. So that’s been good for him.”
- Rasputin, employee
“Yesterday in the mall, three people were arrested. We’ve also had people escorted from our store for being confrontational.”
- Tina, employee
“They added a new team of security guards here, including some from Woodgrove Mall. Apparently it’s a completely new security contract, and they have more training. Things are a little better since they’ve arrived. There seems to be a better handle on things when they do happen.”
- Isabelle, employee
“I haven’t had any issues at all. People are worried about their kids, but I think the security has been doing a phenomenal job. I’ve noticed there are more panhandlers, but it’s been this way for a long time. I shop here every other week.”
- Jaqueline, customer & commuter
Other businesses in the area
“There was a drunk guy here, definitely from tent city. You can usually tell by how they look and talk. He didn’t pay for his order, and after finishing the water we gave him, he started screaming about not being served. He was yelling at the manager, so the cops were called. They escorted him out of the building, but they just let him go. It was like ‘don’t you think he’s just gonna come back?’ It was scary.”
- Wilma, employee
“Customers have been negative about Discontent City. I hear more bad things than I actually see at our store. People ask me all the time if I feel safe, and I do. Discontent City is their home. They’d be scattered everywhere without resources if they didn’t have a place to live. They’re people.”
- Betty, employee
“There has been a rise in theft at our store. Generally, though, I support the message of Discontent City. Around the time it was created, I was evicted. If I didn’t have someone to provide me with a spare room, I would have been homeless. I’ve worked in other areas of town and I’ve encountered way less trouble here. Occasionally there’s an incident, but since they have their own community with bathrooms and clean water, they keep to themselves most of the time.”
- Sally, employee
“It’s been uncomfortable working here. There are people on drugs outside every day and prostitution happening right in public. Our bathrooms are locked though, with a passcode. We have to gauge everyone before we let them use it. If people are in there too long, we have to make sure they haven’t OD’d.”
- Francine, employee
“The bathrooms are the main problem. People are coming in to cut their hair and do drugs. They also steal drinks from our fridge.”
- Gerald, employee
“Lately, it’s been worse. The other night, I was waiting for a bus, and a man began swinging a glass bottle around, very close to me. He wasn’t in his right mind—like he didn’t know what he was doing. When I’m on closing shift, it’s become scary to wait for the bus afterward.”
- Charlotte, employee
If nothing else, the grievances of Discontent City have successfully highlighted the issues it set out to confront. After Nanaimo City Council turned down $7 million dollars in supportive housing funding this spring, the situation has become dire for low-income families. Combined with a dramatic increase in housing costs over the past three years, Discontent City has made it clear that this is a growing concern that cannot be ignored.
Regardless of one’s position, the practicality of the situation must be considered. According to information made public to Nanaimo News Bulletin, Discontent City’s costs have now surpassed $100K after just four months since its inception. Staffing, security, clean water, waste removal, and portable toilets all contribute to the rising bill for a camp that isn’t known to be entirely safe or sanitary. According to the City of Nanaimo’s website, affordable housing has been one of its “top strategic initiatives” for the 2016-2019 period, but has encountered challenges with reaching a consensus.
On October 5, the BC Provincial Government announced a commitment of 170 units of temporary housing to assist the homeless in Nanaimo. To add to the confusion and conflict, the government also ordered that the October 12 eviction be deferred. With the new housing units being unavailable until a projected completion date in November, problems of displacement have now surfaced among the camp’s residents in the meantime. The city has announced that service providers will be present to aid in preparing people for housing and relocation, but the specifics have remained unclear so far.
While it is true that Discontent City has acted as a “functional” placeholder location for people who do not have homes, it is clear that many Nanaimo residents feel that the hazards accompanying it have become hard to justify. Unfortunately, the forum provided by social media for anyone to share their perspective has created an amalgamation of uninformed, passionate opinions which always spread faster than facts. With the upcoming civic elections on October 20, affordable housing and homelessness will be a key election issue. In the end, everyone is affected by Discontent City—and everyone needs a home.