A peer-run overdose prevention service in Nanaimo’s south end is being sent a message that it needs to clean up its act.
At a meeting Monday, Jan. 16, Nanaimo city council voted 7-1 in favour of a staff recommendation to designate 264 Nicol St., home of Nanaimo Area Network of Drug Users, as a nuisance property.
The designation means that the property owner can be billed for municipal service calls related to the property, such as RCMP callouts.
A city staff report noted that there have been nighttime disturbances at the property such as yelling and fighting, and the report also mentioned assaults, erratic behaviour and unconscious people passed out in alleys, yards and parking lots.
Nanaimo RCMP Supt. Lisa Fletcher, in correspondence to council, itemized 14 police callouts to the property. In one instance, 15 people were seen doing drugs in the adjacent alley, and another time, officers observed vehicles lined up in the alley for drive-thru drug trafficking.
“There has been a well-expressed increase in disruption and social disorder from the surrounding neighbourhood residents and local businesses,” she noted.
Dave LaBerge, city manager of bylaw services, said organization at NANDU seems to have deteriorated in recent weeks and access to the site isn’t being as closely controlled as it used to be.
“The vehicle gate is wide open, people are coming and going with animals and driving vehicles in and there’s nobody meeting them or taking account what’s going on,” he said.
Collen Middleton of the Nanaimo Area Public Safety Association told council that one of the drug users poured a 200-litre barrel of used cooking oil down a drain and said a bicycle chop shop operates behind one neighbouring business.
“The noise from fighting, banging, loud music and ambulances wakes us up at all hours, some of us have had to Narcan people,” he said. “These are distressing and traumatic events for people living in the neighbourhood.”
Tim McGrath, who is head of the local Block Watch brigade, called NANDU “an open-air crack house.”
Advocating for the peer network at Monday’s meeting was volunteer coordinator Sara Edmondson, who said the service has helped prevent a “huge” number of overdoses and has saved lives, and has helped some drug users stabilize and improve their lives.
“I can only imagine how many we could help if we were funded better, had no more fear of being shut down at any moment and supported by the community instead of frowned upon,” she said.
Councillors generally expressed support for harm reduction, including peer-run overdose prevention, and said they hoped the nuisance designation would lead to bylaw compliance.
“Our vote tonight is not a referendum on harm reduction or the fact that these services are really important,” said Coun. Hilary Eastmure. “It’s simply the fact that neighbours are really, really suffering because of what’s happening on this site.”
Several members of council felt that the site, which receives some funding through the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and some health care delivery through Island Health, should be better-resourced.
“I think that there’s a huge need for peer support within addictions and I think … the province needs to work more closely with peer support services and integrate it within the services that are provided and also dramatically increase the resourcing,” said Coun. Ben Geselbracht.
Coun. Tyler Brown said he’s frustrated that the service isn’t funded well enough to be able to operate properly.
“Promises of additional resources to mitigate neighbourhood impacts were more or less committed to and never delivered…” he said. “I see none of those organizations taking responsibility for a service that is desperately needed and a model that is going to help people.”
Coun. Ian Thorpe said that when considering a nuisance designation, it didn’t necessarily matter what service was being delivered, and suggested councillors should vote based on “substantial, identified negative impact” to the neighbouring residents and businesses; however, Coun. Erin Hemmens said she can’t separate the site from the service in her decision-making.
“And I think along those lines, the city has structurally acknowledged that by taking a lenient approach to this because we acknowledge that yes, this is difficult for the community, but wow, this is a service that exists for people who don’t have any other services,” she said. “And that’s complex.”
Brown was the only member of council to vote against the nuisance designation. Mayor Krog was absent.