Homeless count shows serious need for more Investment

The 2020 Nanaimo Point-in-Time Homeless Count final data presented toCity Council highlighted the dire need for increased affordable housing and improved services for those facing homelessness. 

The 2020 PiT Count, carried out just prior to the COVID-19 lockdown in March, found that the number of homeless  people in Nanaimo continues to grow, despite efforts to end homelessness. The data shows that the minimum number of people facing homelessness in Nanaimo is 433, but likely the number is closer to 600; an increase of 29% since 2018 (335) and 149% since 2016 (174). Given the influence of COVID-19 restrictions around the time the count took place, there is reason to believe that the real number of people facing homelessness in Nanaimo was underrepresented.  

The PiT Count also found that people facing homelessness in Nanaimo are from Nanaimo. 71.2% have been here for more than five years and initially moved to Nanaimo for the same reasons as everyone else: work, school and family. 

“Despite investments in social and supportive housing over the last five years and increased funding for service providers, the homeless crisis is increasing in our city, as it is in communities across the island and BC. Hopefully, with recommendations and actions resulting from the City of Nanaimo’s Health and Housing Task Force, this fall we can start addressing the root causes of homelessness and together push for major investments at every level of government and processes and relationships will be set to make real systemic changes,” says Jason Harrison, Nanaimo Homeless Coalition co-chair. 

Since the PiT Count was conducted, BC Housing and the City of Nanaimo announced a partnership to create permanent housing options in Nanaimo to reduce the amount of people experiencing homelessness in the region. Over 300 affordable homes are planned for next few years, including permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness and new affordable rental homes for individuals, seniors and families. The permanent supportive housing is intended to replace the temporary housing complexes at Labieux Rd. and Terminal Ave. which were built as an emergency response to Nanaimo’s tent city in 2018. While this is clearly a step in the right direction, data from the PIT Count shows that the number of people facing homelessness is increasing at a high rate, year-over-year, and more action is required to address this crisis.  

 PiT Count Results 

As well as seeing the number of people facing homelessness increase, the length of time people experience homelessness is also increasing; 77.1% reported being chronically homeless (homeless for six months or more), a 5% increase from 2018.  

Right now Nanaimo has approximately 150 shelter beds, which is far below the current need; 75.7% of respondents have stayed in a shelter in the last 12 months, meaning that the total number of people staying in shelters has risen by 40% since 2018 (194 to 271).  

The lack of available shelter beds has led to 61.9% of people facing homelessness being forced to sleep in places not intended for human habitation. The number of people sleeping on the streets is much higher in Nanaimo than in other Canadian communities; for example, Victoria’s 2020 PIT Count shows that only 18% of those counted were sleeping unsheltered. 

Lack of Affordable Housing 

When asked about why they had fallen into homelessness, the top three issues that have caused people to lose their housing are: not enough income (34%), conflict with landlord or other tenant (27.7%), conflict with partner/spouse (18.4%). 

A total of 91% of respondents wish to get into permanent housing, but find it incredibly difficult. Once they lose their housing, the greatest barriers to finding new housing are low income and high rents; very few people found that mental health or substance use are their greatest barriers to finding or maintaining housing. When asked how to solve homelessness, 71%% of respondents agreed that it was necessary to have more affordable housing. 

Health Needs are High 

A large portion of survey respondents indicated they are facing medical, physical and/or mental health challenges. Homelessness has a direct impact on health, making it difficult or impossible to obtain medication and to adhere to medical treatment. When asked what additional types of services would help improve their health, the top three response were: addiction/substance use, mental health and serious/ongoing medical.  

“The PiT Count tells us that the solutions our community embraces have to address health issues as well, which means funding for supports to help people not just make the transition to housing, but also to succeed there. It’s about a lot more than just building affordable housing, although that’s crucial too,” says Signy Madden, Executive Director, United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island.  

A new survey question also found that 24% of respondents have an acquired brain injury, supporting evidence that people facing homelessness have higher incidences of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Brain injury is more common in vulnerable populations and linked to poor mental health, substance use and physical injury. What is unclear is if TBI increases the risk of homelessness or if homelessness increases the risk of TBI.  

Education Levels and Homelessness 

For the first time, the Nanaimo survey asked respondents about their education levels and found that 57% had completed high school or higher, including trades. This is lower than the Canadian high school completion rate of about 77% and 86% in British Columbia. Individuals without a formal education are at a higher risk of unemployment and thus a higher risk of homelessness. 

Youth facing homelessness are often forced to leave the education system in order to survive. A new question was added to the 2020 National Survey to identify foster care as a precipitating factor leading youth into homelessness. In Nanaimo, of those who indicated they had been in foster care, 39% were homeless within five years or less of leaving.  

“We know that succeeding in our education system is key to avoiding youth homelessness. If we can keep young people in school by helping them with housing, grants, and other supports then we’re potentially keeping them from a life on the streets. We need to invest more in upstream help to address the problem at its crux and to avoid homelessness entirely,” says John McCormack, Executive Director, Nanaimo John Howard Society. 

Programs like the United Way-funded Restorative Justice Youth Mentoring Program, through Nanaimo John Howard Society is one example of a program working to support youth in Nanaimo. At-risk youth are paired with volunteer mentors trained in addressing risk factors associated with criminality. For youth, a strong determining factor for deviance and criminality is the lack of positive support people in their lives.  

Actions to Address Homelessness 

The City of Nanaimo’s Council-led Health and Housing Task Force, established by Nanaimo City Council in 2019, have been working in partnership with the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition and United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island to implement system change initiatives which address Nanaimo’s homelessness crisis. A major focus of their work is the development of a Coordinated Access System (CAS), as directed by funding through the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy.  

The current system in Nanaimo is decentralized, meaning that service providers and housing operators do not have a way to consistently share information about available resources or to track their clients’ needs. A CAS will make the most of existing resources and allow service providers to access the same confidential information so they can better understand their clients, the services they’re currently accessing and to connect them with housing and supports in a more streamlined way. However, in order for the CAS to function, there must be enough affordable housing available for the population of people facing homelessness. 

As part of the CAS process, United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island and the City of Nanaimo have engaged Turner Strategies to develop a systems map to better understand Nanaimo’s existing system. Through Turner Strategies, an app that connects Nanaimo citizens with social service resources, such as mental health, addictions, housing, counselling and more, has been rolled-out. All Nanaimo residents can immediately access resources through HelpSeeker.org or by downloading the app.  


  • The count was led by the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition, Nanaimo Region John Howard Society, and United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island.

About the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition 

The Nanaimo Homeless Coalition drives solutions to end homelessness by uniting the organizations, citizens and governments which support at-risk residents, while also working to diminish the harm caused by homelessness on individuals and community. 


About United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island 

Over the past 60 plus years, United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island has become a catalyst for social change – conducting research, convening coalitions, and influencing public policy to make a difference in local communities. In 2019-2020 UWCNVI funded 89 programs thus helping 51,846 people from the Malahat to Port Hardy. uwcnvi.ca 

About the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society 

The Nanaimo Region John Howard Society (NHJS) is part of the network of more than 60 affiliated John Howard Societies across Canada with a shared mission of evidence-based approaches to justice that are humane and lead to community safety. NJHS supports the community by providing services to promote responsible and accountable behaviours that lead to a safer community. johnhowardbc.ca/nanaimo