Impassioned plea for new recovery housing turned down for now by Penticton council

At the 'point of desperation'

Penticton council is holding a development permit for a new recovery housing complex over BC Housing's head until the organization can provide more guarantees they will stick to their promises about how the centre will be operated.

Bob Hughes of ASK Wellness in partnership with Matthew Baran of Ooknakane Friendship Centre are BC Housing's choice to run a housing facility they plan for a recently purchased plot at 3240 Skaha Lake Road.

Hughes and Baran worked on a plan to use the facility to address a clear cry in the community for a path out of the cycle of addiction.

They made an impassioned plea to council to grant the development permit so it can move forward, and fast.

"This project is a made-in-Penticton approach and it is unique, in that it focuses on recovery, and it brings Indigenous support within the building," Hughes said.

The plan is to employ on-site help for everything from counselling to vocational specialists, and provide 54 units of living space at less than $400 per month including two meals a day, in a single four-storey building.

"The people that are entering into this, recovery is what is expected and what they will be committed to," Hughes explained, pointing out the difference between it and shelters or low-barrier housing.

"This is a program, a housing facility, that will offer the opportunity to get well, stay well, contribute to the community," adding that a problem he sees often is people returning from treatment facilities and finding nowhere to go.

Substance use will not be allowed on site, and should the renters come home inebriated, they will be transferred to a stabilization unit nearby at the Fairhaven facility to determine whether they are still committed to treatment or if a better option is to transfer them back to more low-barrier housing.

"They're not immediately going to be kicked to the curb. They will be given the opportunity to say, what are the things that you need to get back into recovery, and that would be the expectation," Hughes explained.

Baran says it is key that Indigenous organization will have a hand in its operations.

"This is one of the best plans I've seen this community draft up," Baran said. "It's going to be a great opportunity. And a hell of a lot of work. We're going to make mistakes, but we're going to be able to learn from those mistakes."

But Mayor John Vassilaki was blunt in his wariness to proceed, citing in part a requested audit of BC Housing-owned facilities in the city that has only recently gotten underway, and BC Housing continuing to operate the Victory Church shelter against council's wishes.

"I want to make sure that [BC Housing] is not going to put a knife in my back and do the opposite of what they said they're going to do," Vassilaki said, explaining as mayor he worries blame for any issues will be laid at his feet. "We [mayor and council] are going to suffer in the long run when things go wrong."

Vassilaki said he will want assurances the city can pull the plug on operations any time.

"I don't want Minister Eby overriding what city council wants and needs."

Hughes said in his opinion, the need in the community is too dire to be waiting for the audit.

"I give you my personal word that this is a project that will not fail," Hughes said.

"You want to hold my organization and myself accountable for this? I would be proud to do that for my community."

Baran said the community is at the "point of desperation." His single drug counsellor at Ooknakane treated over 3,800 people in the last year alone, looking for a step up and out of addiction.

He said under the current system, they can't send people out to treatment centres unless they have a home to return to.

"They are reaching out. And we have nothing to offer them ... Every time we turn around, there are barriers to service," Baran said.

"As a citizen, I could ask, can you guarantee that the bike lane is going to be used? But the reality is you gotta build it to see if it's going to work ... I don't know what it is that you will need for a guarantee ... I know you guys have a problem with BC Housing. I need you to shelve that for now. I can't wait longer. I can't keep people in a holding pattern, waiting to get in treatment. That's unethical."

Council agreed with the spirit of Hughes and Baran's vision, but since they are contracted by BC Housing, talk turned to how to get assurance from the government body that the model will be maintained.

Coun. Julius Bloomfield said he thinks the housing is definitely needed, but suggested a performance bond, or something similar, entered into between the city and BC Housing, that the quiet enjoyment of neighbours' properties is guaranteed.

"If we can say look, we approve this development permit provided that we enter into an agreement with the owners on title, that's a strong message," Bloomfield said.

Coun. Robinson agreed.

"We want some comfort level to know that at the end of those five years, that we're not going to get another wet facility," Robinson said. "[BC Housing] needs to come on board and we all need to work together on this."

After more than two hours of questions and lengthy back-and-forth discussion, council finally settled on approving the development permit subject to staff arranging an agreement between the city and BC Housing to ensure "satisfactory future operations" of the facility.

Once signed, council will look it over for final approval at a future meeting, and only then will the permit be issued.

Baran was visibly upset with the delay.

"We're playing with people's lives right now."

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