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Nanaimo non-profit lays off staff, shutters services after possible misappropriation of money

RCMP investigating after Society for Equity, Inclusion and Advocacy’s operating funds go missing
Charles Nelson, executive director of the Society for Equity, Inclusion and Advocacy, sits among offices devoid of staff. Nelson and volunteers are trying to keep some services operating after the society laid off staff upon discovering some of its operating funds had allegedly gone missing. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

The Society for Equity, Inclusion and Advocacy has suspended services and let go of one staff member following the discovery of a possible misappropriation of funds.

The society’s warming centre – Nanaimo’s only warming centre – and women’s shelter and other services closed over the weekend and its 10 paid staff members have been laid off.

“We are deeply saddened by the turn of events which have led to the current suspension of services at SEIA,” the board of directors said in a written statement issued Wednesday, Dec. 8. “We are investigating a possible misappropriation of SEIA funds and we have identified an individual we believe is responsible. The person is no longer active in the organization and the RCMP are involved. While we are confident that our actions to date will prevent any future loss to the SEIA, this situation has caused the SEIA to be in financial difficulty and the current closure of our offices.”

The society formed in 2019 when the Nanaimo Women’s Resource Society and Nanaimo Citizens Advocacy amalgamated and moved to offices on Wallace Street. The non-profit provides services that include general and legal advocacy, essential household goods and starter kits for people setting up new homes, tenancy support for people experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of becoming homeless, a women’s drop-in centre, a basic needs program that provides clothes, diapers, school supplies, personal care items and information to connect clients with community resources, a women’s shelter, a cold-weather warming centre, and youth entrepreneurship and clothing donation programs. The society serves about 200 clients a month.

Charles Nelson, society executive director, and the Nanaimo RCMP confirmed the board’s statement about the society’s current financial situation and the police investigation.

“Yes, we were contacted and we have launched a criminal investigation,” said Const. Gary O’Brien, Nanaimo RCMP spokesman, adding that the detachment could not offer further comment.

Neither the RCMP nor Nelson confirmed how much money went missing and Nelson did not say how long the money would have supported SEIA operations.

“We’re not doing good, in so much that we’ve had to lay off all staff,” Nelson said. “So, that’s significant and what a time to do that, just before Christmas.”

Erica Steinhauer, women’s centre staff member, said several volunteers were continuing to come in to help keep whatever services possible running.

“We have a couple more people coming in too that said that they’ll volunteer and one of our previous workers is now doing outreach in the mornings, bringing left-over lunches,” Steinhauer said.

Nelson said SEIA appreciates staff and volunteers continuing to support the office on a volunteer basis to meet commitments they’ve made with their clients.

“What I could say is that we’re … doing our best to reopen the doors in an official capacity as quickly as [the board] can because they’re concerned about the community [members] that are affected and they’re worried about staff and the volunteers that support this organization,” Nelson said.

The SEIA board’s statement noted the society is “working with other community organizations to fill gaps in services and to redirect in-kind donations to ensure our clients have adequate clothing, blankets and supplies.”

Nelson said the SEIA came together just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and it hadn’t had the chance to fully communicate with the community about what it does, but its employees and volunteers have come to “see each other much like family.” He said SEIA’s work in the community is important as the agency is usually a last resort for people who’ve been turned away elsewhere.

“[This situation] has profoundly affected people emotionally. It’s profoundly affected people financially and it’s both extremely sad and extremely angering at the same time and those are the emotions that have been expressed, definitely,” Nelson said. “At this time I think that providing the support that is needed to help move things forward, the best way we can, is important and I know that I’m trying to do that, I know staff are trying to do that, I know the board is trying to do that and our hopes are to continue to do that.”

People wishing to make donations can do so to support the SEIA’s general operations or target them to specific programs via Paypal, cheque or e-transfer to or through Canada Helps at this link.

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Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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