The Nanaimo Street Initiatives

Bringing Heart and Humanity to Homelessness


The Nanaimo Street Initiatives (NSI) explore new and creative ways in which to foster more care and compassion in how we address homelessness and mental health issues in the city of Nanaimo. In order to achieve these goals and implement these worthwhile initiatives a registered charitable entity first needs to be established that would both administer and disperse funds received from a number of different sources. Those sources include; local/regional benefits and fund raisers featuring original arts and music from Nanaimo's vibrant arts community, crowd funding, grants, church groups, philanthropy, financial assistance from the business community and the City of Nanaimo and lastly, the sale of limited edition prints from local photographer/musician Dennis Lakusta. These limited edition prints can be previewed at www.nanaimostreet.org This exquisite website will become the flagship of the Nanaimo Street Initiatives with the bulk of the donations generated through the limited edition prints and from the website to be directed towards NSI projects.

(Note: It needs to be clarified at the outset that the following ten initiatives are not the solution to homelessness in Nanaimo. The ultimate solution is finding homes. The United Nations has declared that having a home is a basic human right and we as a society must do our level best to honour and protect this right. But, that being said, the reality is that homelessness does exist and NSI will endeavour to ease some of the stress and hardship by creating unique opportunities for those living on the street).

The Nanaimo Street Initiatives - An Overview

"There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come."

Initiative #1

Volunteerism is the lifeblood of the Nanaimo Street Initiatives. Our mission is to provide opportunities for folks living on the street - both young and old - to involve themselves in volunteering...and receive an honourarium (cash and vouchers) for doing so. The City of Nanaimo offers a wide spectrum of opportunities for volunteering in the many agencies and services that constitute its social safety net. We have spoken to a number of our street friends in the downtown core who have given an enthusiastic thumbs up on the idea. It would certainly beat loitering around the downtown core or sitting all afternoon on the cold hard cement sidewalks panhandling for a few coins. This plan would be a win/win situation for all stakeholders (the business community, city hall, the police, the agencies and foodbanks, the citizens) and especially the street folks. It would do wonders for their self-esteem...being involved in something useful, purposeful and worthwhile - like helping others - and may even lead to other opportunities for part-time or full-time employment as well.

Another exciting aspect of this unique approach to bringing more care and compassion to those who are less fortunate would be the many volunteering opportunities within the Nanaimo Street Initiatives projects themselves. These opportunities will be laid out in detail as we work our way through the overview.

In terms of the honourarium, this could be determined by the amount of hours spent volunteering and could be a cash payment or a combination of cash and vouchers for goods. For example, for every two-hour shift the volunteer would receive $10 in cash and possibly a voucher as well. Shifts could be two, four or six hours in length so the honourariums would be $10, $20 or $30 respectively. It is important for the volunteer to understand that the honourarium is not a wage, income, paycheck or remuneration but instead a token or gesture of appreciation and gratitude for volunteering. The honourarium would be paid out of the registered charitable fund mentioned earlier.

A few hoops and details need to be worked out but this at least presents the essence of the idea itself.

Initiative #2

Nanaimo has a vibrant arts and music community who are keen on activism and volunteering. They would form a second front and provide a backup to the homeless volunteers from the streets. Organizing art shows, raffles, concerts that would benefit the NSI fund and other non-profits... organizing clothing and blanket drives in the fall in preparation for the wet and chilly winter months when the homeless are most vulnerable and in need. Providing a backup food distribution program in the event that other services for the homeless shut down or are scaled back because of the coronavirus situation. These and many more efforts would be staffed by volunteers from both the homeless community and the arts and music community.

With the devastating effects of the coronavirus on global economies, the homeless communities are particularly hit hard re second-hand clothing and blankets. Value Village and most second-hand shops can sometimes close without notice. The clothing drives mentioned above would not only provide clean 'previously worn' items for those living on the streets but would also provide fashion upgrades for those who volunteer in the community. The NSI team will also provide haircuts and footwear. A storage space (situated in a central location) would be rented on an ongoing basis to store all the clothing and whatever other items (blankets, tents, umbrellas, etc.) that require storage.

Initiative #3

Creating a 'buddy' system for homeless and disabled folks in the downtown core. It is painful to watch some of these folks (especially the elderly) trying to maneuver their awkward wheel chairs around town. Nanaimo is built on the side of a mountain and there are a lot of streets and avenues that are extremely difficult to negotiate for an elderly person in a wheel chair. A young and strong volunteer from the street could be assigned to act as a 'buddy' for a couple of hours in the morning or a couple of hours in the evening and ensure the disabled can get from the shelters to the 7-10 Club for breakfast and then to the downtown area (and then back again in the evening). A 'buddy' could be assigned to a handicapped person who might like to spend the afternoon at a park or the Woodgrove Mall or perhaps take in a movie. Lots of possibilities with this one.

The same kind of honourarium would be provided for this service.

Initiative #4

To further expand on Initiative #3, NSI will assist homeless folks - especially the elderly who are wheel chair-bound - in moving up to electric wheel chairs or electric 'scooters'. Those who qualify for disability income assistance are eligible to apply for these handy subsidized rechargeable vehicles. In cases where the disabled person does not have disability income assistance but qualifies, our volunteers will help steer them to the appropriate agency which can process their application.

Initiative #5

Advocacy. NSI volunteers will assist the homeless (esp. with mental health, addiction or disability issues) in connecting with specific agencies and services which make up Nanaimo's social safety net. This assistance would include; birth certificates, social assistance applications, disability income applications, BC care card applications, bank account applications, BC Housing applications, etc. Many street folks try to survive year after year without any I.D. (and therefore no social assistance) and don't realize how easy it is to obtain their birth certificate, SIN numbers, Care cards or other documentation required for the essential services listed above. As long as they have a name and a date of birth (and are born in Canada) these documents can be accessed instantly on line. Advocacy would be the responsibility of a core team of NSI volunteers who have experience in this field.

(Note: There are other agencies which provide help in acquiring the above documents...the NSI team would act as a supplement to these agencies).

Initiative #6

Our Stories. With some basic audio/video equipment and lighting, a few Nanaimo Street volunteers could set up a simple video shoot in a cafe or park where they interview Nanaimo's colourful street folks (one at a time) about the many experiences they've had in their lives - how they grew up, what was their family like, their schooling, the first time they fell in love, their struggles and their good times, their hopes and aspirations and the unique path each has taken to arrive at where they are today. The project would be called 'Our Stories' and the audio/video footage could be edited down and patched together as a documentary that could be distributed far and wide via the world wide web. Any licensing fees could be donated back to the NSI fund which would directly benefit Nanaimo's homeless community.

Each interviewee will be 'wined and dined' before the shoot and will receive a $20 honourarium at the end of the interview. A simple consent and release form will need to be signed by the interviewee.

Other projects involving audio/video and photography could be developed including colourful calendars featuring photo images of street life in Nanaimo which will be photographed by the street folks themselves. The calendars could be produced by the Nanaimo Street fund and sold by the homeless with half the money going to the vendor and half towards production costs. Another photographic project, titled 'Hands', involves compiling a series of high-resolution images of street folk's hands - doing things they love to do - that could be used for calendars and other art projects which would all benefit our homeless citizens. A $20 honourarium would be offered to anyone who participates in this project.

Initiative #7

The many opportunities for volunteering and receiving honourariums may not appeal to everyone or be suitable for everyone. The opportunities are open to all homeless - the young and the old, male, female and l,g,b.t.q., the disabled, and those with mental health and addiction issues. But in those extreme cases where volunteering is impractical or prohibitive - for example the aged, the disabled or the drug addicted - Nanaimo Street will, with dignity and compassion, continue to provide essential services like food, clothing, support and advocacy, to all those living on the street.

Initiative #8

Brain-storming. Some of the ideas contained in this overview are unique and cutting edge. And by the whole community coming together and 'brain-storming', many other ideas could be added to the mix. For example, arts and craft-type items could be created by the 'streets' and sold to the tourists and locals year-round. Many street folks have a natural propensity towards 'busking' and street performance. Perhaps dress a group of homeless in period costumes with tailored wigs and make up, reflecting colourful characters from Nanaimo's history or Canadian history or even world history. Why stop there....expand the adventure to include movie and cultural icons such as Elvis and Marilyn, Laurel and Hardy, Queen Elizabeth, Saddam Hussein, Donald Trump, etc.

Sky's the limit.

Initiative #9

It is our mission - every chance we get - to let our street friends know that they are appreciated, respected and valued...both as Nanaimo citizens and as human beings. Through the many Nanaimo Street projects and opportunities for volunteering it is our hope that some of our homeless friends will have a chance to shine...to prove they belong....and that they are valid and worthwhile human beings.

Initiative #10

The ‘Streets’ Café

Nanaimo's Fine Arts, Learning and Performance Centre

We saved the best for last. The Nanaimo Street Initiatives plans to open (rent or lease) a facility in the downtown core that would function as both a learning centre for Nanaimo's homeless community (during the day) and as a cafe, visual arts and performance centre in the evenings. The concept is simple. During the hours of 10am - 5pm the centre would offer a wide variety of workshops and courses - mostly inclined towards arts, crafts and music - specifically suited for those living on the street. The workshops would include; beginners and intermediate guitar (all instruments will be provided), harmonica, percussion, wood carving, mask making, drum making, painting, singing, stand-up comedy, songwriting, photography, etc, etc. Professional artists, craftspeople and musicians will be paid to conduct the workshops. Also included in the program would be guest speakers and reps from some of the many helpful agencies set up to assist the homeless in finding services they need. For example; employment agencies, BC Housing, Nanaimo Advocacy (Seia), social development and poverty reduction, health and nutrition, etc.

The workshops, courses and cafe would be closed to the public during the day time hours...only those who have signed up for workshops would be admitted. The cafe would be staffed by volunteers (both from NSI and the homeless community) and would serve free hot lunches and beverages for the students after each two-hour workshop. Any homeless folks who come to the door but are not signed up for a workshop will be given a bagged lunch and coffee, as well as a schedule for up-coming workshops in case they would like to sign up.

The facility would close at 5pm and, after a supper break, would open again to the public at 7pm as The Blue Coyote Cafe, an art gallery, activism and performance centre. A wide variety of events could be planned including; art shows, concerts, poetry readings, book launches, stand-up comedy, song circles, scrabble tournaments, movie nights, etc. Our plan is to also create a platform - a couple evenings a week at least - for social activism and forums with guest speakers knowledgable on such subjects as homelessness, poverty, human rights, civil liberties, etc. The walls of the establishment would be used to display visual art by local artists as well as Dennis Lakusta's framed, limited edition prints. All money from art sales would be split between the artist and Nanaimo Street Initiatives with the latter portion going to help cover operational costs for the facility. Dennis will donate all proceeds from his limited edition prints to the fund. Volunteers would be drawn from both the arts and music community and Nanaimo's homeless community. The art gallery and performance centre (in the evenings) would also provide a showcase for arts, crafts, music, stand-up comedy and other performances from students and graduates from the afternoon workshops.

There are many benefits to this unique initiative. The homeless and street community will benefit the most...not only will they have an opportunity to learn an art or craft (which could help them survive and do something creative while on the street) but they will all receive an honourarium for signing up and participating in the workshops or volunteering in the cafe. The honourarium would be $10 for each two-hour workshop completed and $10 for each two-hour shift as a volunteer. As mentioned earlier, the honourarium is not a wage, paycheck or remuneration... it is a gesture of appreciation for those volunteering and participating in the Nanaimo Street Initiatives.

Another huge benefit for the street folks...while volunteering in any of the many projects listed above, they would be assured of a respectful, dignified and uplifting experience, whether they are volunteering for NSI or for any of the other local agencies and services involved in Nanaimo's social safety net. In some cases, hopefully many, volunteering may lead to part-time or full-time employment in local businesses (at the going rates) which would then provide an income base for temporary or permanent housing.

The benefits of this venture to the greater Nanaimo community are obvious...if the city comes together and makes this thing work then the Nanaimo Street Initiatives - and the City of Nanaimo - could become a model for other towns and cities across the nation in terms of creative, healthy and proactive ways in which we can embrace and respect our homeless community.


The latest figures re Nanaimo's homeless population suggest an upward and exponential trend that should be cause for concern for all stakeholders. In 2016 there were 174 citizens living on the street...in 2019 that figure almost doubled to 335 and this year (2020) it is expected to be in the range of 450. If this upward trend continues into next year (2021), Nanaimo is on track to more than triple the original tally of 174 homeless citizens....in only five years. (The above figures courtesy of The Nanaimo Bulletin)

Like other towns and cities across the nation, the City of Nanaimo is sitting on a social and economic powder keg in terms of its current homeless and mental health conundrum. The above statistics and projections are pre-pandemic. (This little factoid should scare the pants off city council). When the economic impact of Covid-19 begins to take affect over the next few years the above projections will become meaningless. And in their place a new and ominous reality will set in which is that we are now in the early stages of a deep and global recession which is expected to endure for most of the next decade (maybe longer). Expect unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies, evictions, poverty, etc. to soar. This town needs to be prepared for the imminent train wreck this new reality portends. There are some who waste valuable time arguing and debating over whose jurisdiction homelessness falls under...civic or provincial. Jurisdiction will matter little when the City of Nanaimo's homeless counts are measured in thousands.

(Note: The above ten initiatives were conceived and rough-drafted well before the coronavirus hit. One or two of the above initiatives, Initiative #10 for example, will have to wait a bit for the dust to settle and then adjust to whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in. But most of the other initiatives are well suited for a global pandemic and are being experimented with as we speak. The 'silver lining' to all this is that we are likely entering a period, an age where volunteers and volunteering will play a more significant role in the new world order. People helping people, the homeless helping the homeless. Within that context, the Nanaimo Street Initiatives appear to be the right idea at the right time).

Dennis Lakusta
May 1, 2020

To enter Dennis Lakusta’s website click here.