The ongoing saga of Penticton and BC Housing continues on.
At Tuesday’s meeting, city council voted unanimously to reject extending the permit for the Victory Church shelter, and to stay with their previous decision to close it on March 31.
The lack of wrap-around support, the location and the senior citizens in the area of the shelter, previous reservations about the original permit and the best interests of the community as a whole were discussed as the reasoning behind rejecting BC Housing’s request to extend the shelter for another year.
“As a councillor, we have a duty to all our citizens,” said Coun. Katie Robinson. “Our council reluctantly approved a temporary, emergency winter shelter, and at that time council made an ironclad promise to that neighbourhood that this inappropriate location would be temporary.”
“It is evident to me that we have the support of the majority of the community for the position we have taken,” said Coun. Julius Bloomfield. “Nobody is telling us to ignore the plight of the homeless. Everyone who has written us a letter also wants us to find a solution… We have the well-being of those 42 people at stake, and I don’t think we should take that lightly, and solving this issue is going to take longer than two weeks.”
Bloomfield proposed multiple options to consider for addressing issues, such as requiring new projects to provide a performance bond to ensure there is money for the supports, and to ensure that the city of Penticton, Interior Health and BC Housing are involved in discussing further solutions.
“We need to get back to the table,” said Bloomfield. “I think the elected politicians at both sides of the issue should not be at the table. It should be staff and the experts who are far better qualified than us to find the solutions.”
Bloomfield also pointed to how many projects the city had worked on before with BC Housing, noting that the city has one supportive housing space for every 143 residents, compared to one per 300 in Kelowna, one per 495 in Vernon and one per 3,600 in the rest of the province.
Coun. Frank Regehr pointed to the closure of Riverview Hospital, and the motion from the Union of B.C. Municipalities asking for it to be reopened in 2013 to address the number of mentally ill and addicted individuals living on the streets in the Lower Mainland.
He also noted that in the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen report on housing, no other community in the region had a substantial homeless population.
“The real problem in the city is inadequate community-based mental health and drug recovery programs for those living in supportive and shelter housing,” said Regehr. “Some of these individuals are contributing to Penticton RCMP having the highest caseload in British Columbia.”
Mayor John Vassilaki took the opportunity during council’s comments on the motion to call for better use of the province’s money than funding Victory Church, which he said is expected to cost $1.7 million for the 42 residents for the year.
“If they were going to take this $40,000 and put it into Riverview, as Coun. Regehr put forward; think of all the good it could do those folks,” said Vassilaki. “Maybe they could get rid of their addictions and their mental illness and make them somewhat normal, so they could live a better life.
“A different kind of life where they can help others instead of others helping them all the time.”
Coun. Campbell Watt also echoed the other councillors’ comments on the lack of supports for the housing projects already in the city.
“I will stand by that. I don’t believe BC Housing facilities are getting the correct support, are getting the correct people, and for whatever reason, our community is paying the price for those inadequacies,” said Watt.
One of the points that staff noted, in response to questions and comments from council, was that part of the issue and reason why Victory Church was even opened as a shelter had to do with the circumstances of the last year.
“This had to do with COVID, we couldn’t house all of the people as we usually could in our cold weather at Compass Court due to COVID,” said Blake Laven, city director of development services.
Compass Court has another phase in construction, that would add another 24 beds to what’s available, and the city has offered to help expedite that construction process.
Without council’s support, Minister David Eby had previously said that BC Housing and the province would go forward and keep the shelter open using their paramountcy powers to override council’s decision.
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