Fencing out the homeless in Nanaimo

Photo of a woman sweeping a sidewalk with a garbage can beside her and her belongings in bags behind her.
Alexis Carstensen, who was camping in Italian Square Park when the camp was shut down by the City of Nanaimo, sweeps the sidewalk near Port Place Mall in Nanaimo on Friday, March 19, 2021. Photo by Mick Sweetman/CHLY 101.7FM
Mick Sweetman - CHLY - NanaimoBC | 21-03-2021

Early on Thursday morning, Sara Ladret was one of several people camping in Italian Square Park near Port Place Mall who were woken up by City of Nanaimo bylaw officers — accompanied by RCMP — and told that they had to pack up and leave.

“It was a lot less tense than I expected for the situation,” said Ladret. “Bylaw showed up and explained that everyone was going to have to exit the park, not just pack up but to exit the park.”

Once they had collected their belongings and left the entire parkette was sealed with a sturdy metal fence.

Ladret has been spent “a good majority” of the past 40 years living on the streets in Nanaimo.

A self-described “active drug addict,” Ladret said she first started using drugs during a traumatic period in her life when she split up with her husband, gave birth to her second child — who she didn't raise — and her only brother died by suicide.

“I kind of lost my mind and went a little crazy,” she said. “I wouldn't say this is the end result, but it is the ongoing result.”

According to Ladret, people who were camping in the park were “disturbed and obviously disrupted” by the order to pack up and move along, leading to some “up and down emotions” but it in the end people left peacefully.

According to records obtained by CHLY through Freedom of Information requests, City of Nanaimo bylaw officers issued 27 tickets totalling $4,050 in fines related to shelters in city parks between April 2019 and Feb. 22, 2021.

Almost all of the tickets with location information were issued in Bowen Park or along Bowen Road, along with three on Comox Road and one on Townsite Road in the same area of the city.

15 tickets were issued in 2019, at least 10 were issued in 2020 and two were issued between Dec. 15, 2020 and Feb. 22, 2021.

Seven tickets have been issued since the fire at the Wesley Street camp in early December prompted the removal of the people from that site. After the city closed the Wesley Street camp a fence went up blocking access to the street and the parking lots where the camp had been.

Shortly after the dispersal of the Wesley Street camp some people started camping near the picnic area of Bowen Park and four tickets for shelters were issued on “Bowen Road” around the same dates the city closed the picnic shelters in the park and fenced them off.

“We're being caged out of every part in Nanaimo,” said Ladret. “We're not allowed to go anywhere.”

According to Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog, the decision was made to fence off the park due to “numerous complaints” from shoppers and business owners at the mall.

Krog said he was concerned that if the camp grew in size it would become another large encampment.

“We weren't prepared to see another Wesley Street with active drug transactions and use open prostitution, chop shops operating,” said Krog. “Public order is important.”

Krog said that he stopped at the mall on Friday to run some errands.

“I spoke to the security guard who came up to me and thanked me profusely, he said, 'it's a lot quieter down here.' He said, 'if people only knew I've been spat on, I've been harassed, I've been sworn at over and over again.'”

Ladret said that wasn't her experience at the park.

“We just needed a place to sleep, not pleased to be a place to have our stuff and not have to pick it up and move it every day,” she said. “We weren't causing problems, no one was getting robbed, and no one was being harassed.”

Problems like homelessness, mental health and substance use are too big for the city to fix according to Krog and require the resources of the provincial and federal governments.

He repeated his controversial call for higher levels of government to provide “the kind of facilities that provide the complex care” for people with “severe mental health, addiction and acquired brain injury issues.”

Ladret says that life on the streets of Nanaimo can be tough but she also feels a sense of community.

“This town will eat you alive if you let it,” she said. “But if you actually let yourself get to know and trust the people down here to do good by you, then you can be okay. There's some really, really decent, incredibly brilliant people here.”