Penticton Safety and Security Advisory Committee continues to discuss and disagree on how to plan for shelters, supportive housing

No clear place for shelters

A special meeting of Penticton's Safety and Security Advisory Committee could not come to a consensus on a city-wide plan for where, or where not, to place future homeless shelters and supportive housing complexes.

The committee, made up of roughly half a dozen civilians and council liaisons Mayor John Vassilaki and Coun. Katie Robinson, met Monday and discussed a preliminary plan that would see the city officially lay out guidelines for any future developers seeking to build homelessness-related housing locations in the community.

The early blueprint suggests buffer-zone bubbles throughout the city around schools and parks, on major roadways and tourist areas like Skaha Lake Road, Riverside Drive, the beaches and Main Street, and a recommendation for "consideration" of foot-traffic businesses and seniors' living complexes.

The preliminary map raised some eyebrows at the meeting immediately.

“One of the things I thought about when I was looking at the map is, what if there’s a big shelter in the middle of Uplands or Redlands … we didn’t discuss single-family housing, and those neighbourhoods," committee vice chair Deirdre Riley said, noting that exempting main corridors and popular public space areas leaves not much obvious room elsewhere for potential developments.

Fellow committee member Aaryn Secker said she found the proposed rules "discriminatory."

"It feels like these guidelines [are] about keeping vulnerable people out of sight and out of mind," she said, noting that high-traffic tourism areas would be among those exempted.

City development services director Blake Laven acknowledged the difficulties of the committee coming up with recommendations, and explained city staff have been going back and forth on tough issues like whether to treat shelters and supportive housing differently in any guidelines that will eventually make their way to council.

"I don’t like to look at this as we’re trying to exclude certain members of the community," Laven said.

He spoke to "gaps in the system" that are leaving a certain percentage of individuals who attempt to use the shelter or supportive housing system unable to access help, because their mental health or addiction issue is too severe to be addressed by those facilities.

"There’s nothing for those individuals. They are left to the streets and to the community to deal with. I think that’s where a lot of the issues we’re seeing are coming from, the very small percentage of them that are not being properly serviced by the system because there is no service for them," Laven said.

Some on the committee, including Coun. Katie Robinson, expressed enthusiasm for the concept of encouraging multiple smaller shelters throughout the community rather than a hub like the controversial Victory Church shelter or Compass Court shelter/supportive housing complex.

Robinson suggested that these smaller units could be used to group clients by need — be that a dry facility, a place to find mental health help, a place specific for Indigenous clients, or any other potential niche needs.

"I think there’s a lot of merit to looking at that so the people who do want treatment, and are heading in the right direction, and you don’t have to be right next to someone who is a drug addict … I think a lot of times they feed into what some people would consider bad behaviour," Robinson said.

"When your children are acting up and they’re fighting together, what do you do? You put them in separate rooms. Maybe we're missing the obvious here."

Laven clarified that provincial legislation does allow for group supportive homes up to eight individuals in care that supersede local zoning, and it has been successful in some instances.

"The model that we’re seeing in our community is it’s in a house, in a residential area, the neighbours may or may not know but it’s low impact … smaller facilities, not as large."

“I can’t think of any other disability where we take one disability and kind of warehouse it in one building. The more I listen to the comments this morning the more I’m convinced if we had smaller units dispersed in the city the less of a problem there would be,” Robinson added later in the meeting.

Tony Laing, CEO of the Penticton and District Society for Community Living which operates many of the local shelters and supportive housing facilities, agrees in theory, but cautions that in reality, that is likely an unfeasible dream as a city-wide solution.

"For a number of reasons, not just cost, but what it does is spread the problem around town," Laing explained.

"Shelters and supportive housing units are not treatment facilities. They try and stabilize people ... but a person needs to be in a place where they are willing to accept treatment, we can't force it upon people. We're not a treatment centre. I think that's a misconception that council expects wraparound services in supportive housing to include treatment. That's not the purpose of supportive housing."

Laing said economies of scale would work against trying to break apart shelter or supportive housing services into smaller chunks.

"Our current need count is we have 120-plus people that used our facility in the month of February, the last month I have numbers for," he said, explaining it would take a lot of eight-bed facilities around town to fill that demand.

Laing attended Monday's meeting virtually, and was disappointed to see a lack of participation from the public, given the contentious matter at hand. He wondered whether future committee meetings could be better publicized by the city.

"I don't know that very many people knew that this committee would have the opportunity to ask any questions," Laing said.

Local lawyer Amelia Boultbee was the lone active public participant in the meeting outside of media and committee members, who pitched the idea of smaller group housing.

"I was surprised at the relatively low attendance at this meeting, both from the public and in particular, the low number of stakeholders representing service providers to those utilizing Penticton's shelter services," Boultbee said after the fact.

"As a member of the public I wouldn't be aware whether there are other meetings happening privately, but I sincerely hope that the city is consulting with those who work in this area, as they are a wealth of information. I would like to see these meetings better attended by the public as well as service providers and other stakeholders."

Ultimately, as the meeting progressed with no sign of consensus, city staff proposed that the matter of cementing a recommendation to council as to acceptable areas in the city for shelters and supportive housing be picked up at the next committee meeting.

Laven said city staff will work on adding layers to the proposed map, including adding some seniors' facilities, and the discussion will continue on May 3. Any plan proposed by the committee would then be sent to council for formal consideration and potential adoption.

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