Zero-interest loans to keep people housed

This is the first post in our Housing and Health series, where we explore several of the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society’s housing programs. In this series, we’re looking at the connection between housing and health, and show that many approaches are needed to reach an end to homelessness. First, we’re starting with prevention. 

WEBSizeColorful-tullaghan-houses-738158.jpgThere are many reasons why someone might become homeless, but it’s no mystery how it happens. 

Sickness, trauma, and violence among many other reasons can result in someone losing their home. And, as we know, sometimes a worldwide pandemic results in devastating job cuts, putting people who had been financially stable suddenly at risk of becoming homeless as well.  

While there are supports available to help people when they become homeless (which will be discussed in future posts in this series), sometimes it only takes a small intervention to keep people from losing their homes in the first place. 

When you can’t make the rent this month, or you are about to lose power because of an unpaid hydro bill, Nanaimo’s newly created rent bank is now there to help. 

Nanaimo’s first rent bank opened this January (2021) via funding by the City of Nanaimo, BC Rent Bank, United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island and the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy.  

Run by the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society, it offers interest-free loans, combined with compassionate repayment plans that seek to keep people housed and financially stable. 

The rent bank is an important new tool for Nanaimo, as it’s often easier to keep someone housed than to try and find them housing once they become homeless, says the co-executive director of the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society, John McCormick. 

“We know that when someone isn’t housed, it’s very difficult for us, as a service provider, to be able to help them to access resources and services,” explains John. “Every aspect of their lives starts to corrode at that point.” 

“And given the nature of Nanaimo’s current vacancy rate, if someone is unhoused, it’s probably going to be a lot more expensive to rehouse them … there’s an expense in trying to rehouse them, and we are going to be using community resources to try and do so. 

“So if we can keep someone housed by a rent bank or rent arrears grant of some sort or some other mechanism, working with the landlord, then that’s great. And the rent bank is just one aspect of that.” 

John also noted that currently, even the waiting lists for rehousing supports via his organization and others are already full. “The real challenge in Nanaimo is trying to find vacancies, affordable vacancies for people. It’s really very difficult once someone loses their housing.” 

“If we can keep someone housed, great, that’s critical.” 

The public response to the rent bank is showing how much it’s needed. 

“We’ve just started up and not done much in the way of advertising … [and] every day we’re getting more,” says McCormick. 

“I expect that’s how it’s going to be.” 

Residents can apply for a loan through the Nanaimo Region John Howard website: 

John notes that, even if a loan isn’t approved, connecting with the John Howard Society can lead to those in need being provided other supports. 

“Someone contacts us because they’ve hit that moment where they’re going to get evicted if they don’t come up with the rent,” says McCormick of the purpose of the rent bank.  

“It’s an emergency situation, so the response times have to be super fast. We have to go from a pre-assessment to a working relationship with the person in a few days, and working with their landlord.” 

“These are folks who are not going to get the support they need from a financial institution of any kind, and if they do they will be in a predatory situation where they are going to be preyed upon,” he says. 

With the rent bank, repayments can be small, and pauses in repayments are allowed when necessary. 

“We want you to be stabilized,” says John. “We’re going to make sure you’re not going to be evicted, and everything else we’ll work with you on.” 

McCormick noted that the rent bank is focused on dealing with short-term need, and cannot address every issue. Nonetheless, there are other supports available, he says. 

“It’s another arrow in the quiver,” says John of the rent bank. And it’s one that may grow to include even more kinds of supports. But there is no one program that can solve homelessness. Many options are needed that can work with people in different circumstances and in different places in their lives. 

In our following posts in our Housing and Health series, we’ll take a look at some of the other housing programs the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society offers with support from United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island and the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy.