Province will override Penticton council's vote to shutter Victory Church homeless shelter if council does not reverse the decision

Homeless shelter ultimatum

Chelsea Powrie

If Penticton city council does not walk back its decision to shut down the old Victory Church emergency homeless shelter, the province says it will step in and override their plans anyway.

Council voted last Tuesday to deny the BC Housing-funded shelter an extension of their lease at the end of March, sparking a disagreement between them and David Eby, provincial housing minister.

This week, the province has fired back, sending a letter through BC Housing to council asking them to reconsider the decision and send a response by March 15. After that, the letter states, the province will invoke their "paramountcy" right, which gives them power to override municipal council zoning decisions for provincial projects.

Eby said this was the only option left to the provincial government after council voted down the temporary use permit extension for the shelter.

"The province does not have to follow the city's zoning rules," Eby said, adding that paramountcy is an rare tactic to be used.

"It has been used over the objections of a municipality before ... it's not a preferred approach by anybody. I believe we come up with better solutions together when we're working together on identifying sites and how buildings will look and how they will operate, but in the absence of that cooperation, we do have to go ahead, we can't have encampments in cities like Penticton."

A homeless encampment is indeed the concern, should the 40-plus patrons of the Victory Church shelter suddenly find themselves without a place to sleep.

"Cities shouldn't be tricked into thinking that encampments are somehow just big-city issues," Eby said.

"There is a BC Court of Appeals decision that governs the entire province that says that where there is nowhere else to go, no emergency shelter, no supportive housing, that people can camp in parks and camp on public land. It can happen very quickly, and especially when you're getting into the neighbourhood of 160 people who are homeless as Penticton is, then you're talking about a fairly sizeable encampment that is impossible to remove. You can't get an injunction, police cannot remove it, you can't direct police to remove it."

In a statement last week responding to Eby's public and vocal disappointment in council's decision making, Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki doubled down on the decision to deny the shelter's continuation, accusing the province of "bullying" the municipality.

Eby declined to comment on that accusation Wednesday.

"My phone remains on, I'm not interested in having a name-calling contest with any local official. It's about the 42 people who live in the shelter and whether or not the province will allow them to be emptied out into the park, and the short answer is we will not, and that's the end of the story," Eby said.

"I believe that we would have a much better outcome for Penticton if city council recognized that reality and we all worked together to address how to and where to house these homeless folks."

The letter addressed to council requests a response by Monday, March 15, but Eby noted that there is no consequence if they decide not to write back, the province will merely continue with their plan to keep the shelter open through March 2022.

"The letter says very clearly that it's our intent to keep operating the shelter, to keep people inside, and support them as best we can with the emergency shelter which is not the preferred location," Eby said, while still working toward more supportive housing in the community to get people off the streets permanently.

One of those supportive housing proposals is located on Skaha Lake Road, at a plot of land purchased by BC Housing in late 2020 which is zoned correctly for high-density housing purposes but still needs building permits from city council, due to be granted or denied at an upcoming meeting. It is Eby's hope that this will move forward to take away the need for long-term emergency shelters like the one in question at Victory Church.

Eby said his hope is to hear from the city in the coming days.

"It's an unnecessary crisis, in my mind, and I imagine the city must have a plan, I just don't know what it is, and it's possible to hear about that by Monday and it might be an agreeable plan, but then again it might not," Eby said.

"Anytime Penticton council wants to have a serious discussion about supportive housing and moving forward to close the shelter and getting people permanently housed, my office door remains open."

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