Penticton council stands by decision to shutter emergency shelter, despite pleas and threats from province

No 2nd chance for shelter

There will be no last-minute thawing of the ice in Penticton council's decision to deny a BC Housing request to keep the controversial Victory Church emergency shelter open through the rest of 2021.

The housing authority has operated the 42-bed shelter on Winnipeg Street through the Penticton and District Society for Community Living since November 2020, but its temporary use permit is set to expire March 31, 2021 despite a contentious ask for council to consider extending it.

BC Housing sent a letter hoping council would reconsider, and raised the threat of invoking paramountcy rights to to continue operating the location anyway. At Tuesday's meeting, council officially received that letter, and it was not a warm welcome.

The five councillors and mayor voted unanimously to deny the request to reconsider, taking the time before the vote to each speak to their reasons for the decision.

Most took the opportunity to affirm their commitment to finding solutions to the ongoing homelessness issue in the city, but cited the unprecedented number of letters and emails that have poured in expressing concern about the Winnipeg Street shelter.

“Nobody is ignoring the plight of the homeless,” Coun. Julius Bloomfield said, outlining his hope that relevant stakeholders like BC Housing and City staff, rather than elected officials, will head back to the table together for long-term solutions.

“We’re looking at a two-week deadline for the closure of a homeless shelter that is housing 42 people, and I just want everyone to know that we have the wellbeing of those 42 people at stake and I don’t think we should take that wellbeing lightly. And solving this issue is going to take more than two weeks."

Bloomfield said he had considered making a motion to extend the shelter for a few months, but ultimately did not decide to.

The bottom line, as many councillors mentioned, was that the shelter was approved "reluctantly" by council back in November under the strict assurances to the alarmed neighbourhood that it was temporary, and only for the winter.

"At that time, council made an iron-clad promise to that neighbourhood that this inappropriate location would not be permanent,” Coun. Katie Robinson said. “I will not break that [promise].”

Robinson and others cited the three nearby seniors' housing facilities as a major reason for not wanting the shelter to continue at that location.

"These seniors are equally as vulnerable if not more so than [the shelter population]," Robinson said.

Coun. Judy Sentes echoed that concern, and said the door is not closed to discussions with the provincial government on solutions to the homeless crisis.

"I have never received as many emails as I have through this conversation. And to those who feel that council has been coldhearted, and I am sympathetic, I can only assure you that isn’t true. We have anguished over this,” Sentes said. “We recognize that these people need help.”

Many of the councillors raised concerns about a lack of "wrap-around" services — like mental health and addictions programs for residents of these locations — which had been promised by BC Housing at the outset of all of their recent shelter and supportive housing endeavours in Penticton.

Coun. Campbell Watt called existing management of BC Housing facilities "inadequate."

"Our community is paying the price for those inadequacies. And I no longer think that’s fair," he said, adding he hopes for a collaborative provincial and city solution in the future.

Mayor John Vassilaki thanked the councillors for their comments, saying “I have never been as proud of this city council as I am at this time."

He speculated about the funding that BC Housing had been prepared to spend on the shelter if council had approved the year-long extension, about $1.7 million, wondering aloud whether that money could be better used to send some of the shelter users for mental health treatment at government facilities.

"Maybe they can get rid of their addictions and mental health issues and make them somewhat normal,” he said, instead of having others “help them all the time.”

BC Housing and the Minister of Housing David Eby had previously set a deadline of March 15, Monday, to hear back from city council about the shelter before they considered further steps to potentially override the decision.

City director of development services also weighed in at Tuesday's meeting, noting that the reason the emergency shelter was necessary in the first place was COVID-19 caps on numbers at Penticton's existing Compass Court shelter. Given that vaccines are beginning to roll out and the homeless population in the province are among those at the front of the line, he has made inquiries with provincial health authorities as to whether Compass Court may soon be able to operate at full capacity again.

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