The City of Quesnel council raised questions and concerns regarding current and future supportive housing projects in the community with a delegation that included Malachy Tohill, the Regional Director for B.C. Housing, and Melanie MacDonald, the Executive Director of Seasons House Shelter during a virtual council meeting on Tuesday, June 24.
One of the concerns raised by councillor Mitch Vik during the meeting was transparency to the public with regards to the operations and tenant selection for the Bridges Supportive Housing project.
“Rightly or wrongly there is still some apprehension in the community, many councillors are approached [by residents] often just with apprehension and concern about how the operation will function and that includes tenant selection,” said Vik. “There is a whole gamut of concerns which we’re not always prepared to answer. I am hoping that at some point there is going to be an open dialogue with the community – about how your facility is going to be managed and what sort of things will happen there. At what point will the neighbourhood be involved in this dialogue?”
MacDonald said that last year a meeting was held by the Quesnel Shelter and Support Society (QSS) with the community as a part of the Good Neighbour Agreement to discuss the Bridges Supportive Housing project and that a second virtual meeting which is open to the public will be held on July 22.
“Last April we had our initial Good Neighbour meeting and I think this is where the Good Neighbourhood Agreement comes in and the Good Neighbour committee, so prior to breaking ground we held that initial meeting,” said MacDonald. “Now we have on our website a save the date for a Good Neighbour meeting for July 22 — we will advertise it and put it out through our social media. The tenant selection process will be a part of that meeting and we will be able to talk to the community about what that looks like.”
Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson noted that many Quesnel residents had raised concerns over whether or not individuals living outside of Quesnel seeking supportive housing might be moved into the Bridges facility.
“A question that has been floating around in the community — is this Quesnel’s supportive housing or is this regional, is it provincial, can people be bumped from Kelowna to here or from Prince George to here to get into the Bridges Supportive Housing?,” said mayor Simpson.
Tohill responded that while the Bridges Supportive Housing project is a provincial one, it is a resource for those in need within the Quesnel community.
“It is a provincial resource however, it is to meet the needs of the homeless of Quesnel and those at risk of homelessness in Quesnel and those who need supportive housing in Quesnel,” said Tohill. “So no, people won’t be sent from any other community up here. As a matter of fact we have this type of housing going in a number of communities across the province.”
Another question raised during the meeting was what will happen to the Seasons House Shelter as some of its residents move into the Bridges housing project. Tohill said that B.C. Housing, The City of Quesnel and QSS have committed to finding the shelter a new home once the other supportive housing projects currently underway have been completed.
“One of the things we talked about way back when is what happens to the shelter when we start getting people housed in supportive housing,” said Tohill. “There is a commitment by myself and by the City and QSS that once we get the supportive housing up, we will see what the impact is on that shelter and look for another location that will meet the needs of those that continue to be homeless in Quesnel.”
City of Quesnel Director of Development Services, Tanya Turner says she feels that if the safety and security of the clients and staff of Seasons House is of chief concern, that the timeline for relocating the shelter should be moved up, noting that a consultant who was brought in to look at the shelter had serious safety concerns about the facility.
“I believe we have all been at the table and said that shelter is a problem in terms of the way it is structured and the consultant that you brought down — was horrified at the shelter saying it is an absolute safety and security issue just from the design of it,” said Turner. “If that is the goal to improve safety and security I think we need to up that timeline a little bit.”
Councillor Martin Runge who owns a business located in downtown Quesnel asked if there was currently a curfew set for residents of the shelter as some of the issues business owners in the area have expressed, which may or may not involve shelter clients, are taking place late at night.
“As a downtown business owner and also seeing a lot of the things that happen down there, we know it will be a few years before all the [supportive housing] buildings will be in place, so for me I’m looking at, is there a timeline that the residents of the shelter should be inside?,” said Runge. “Or do they have open access in and out of the building throughout all hours of the evening?”
MacDonald answered that the shelter is not allowed to restrict clients access to exit the building at any time and that turning away those who wish to enter the facility late at night could potentially create more issues for the community.
“We don’t have the ability to put curfew on any population of people,” said MacDonald. “People are free to come and go from the shelter just like they are anywhere else. What we do is we have a time, right now we’re closed to the public due to COVID-19, but we have a time that we do close our doors here at the shelter. For some individuals, it’s a really complex population that we work with, so for some individuals it is really difficult to stop them going in and out at night, others it’s not. Some individuals we might say no more, you are being too disruptive going in and out, in and out all night long and we will prevent them from coming in, if it’s not winter of course. If we closed our doors at 10 o’clock and said no more access to anyone then there would be a whole lot of people who do come to us at say midnight and do want to come in and lay down and go to sleep who potentially would be left out in the community and on business doorsteps. It’s just not a black and white situation.”
Councillor Mitch Vik echoed some of Runge’s concerns and asked whether or not the shelter could put into place policies for its clients which would help business owners struggling with ongoing theft and damage which may or may not perpetrated by clients of the shelter.
“At some point we have to reconcile that these individuals are causing harm to business owners in terms of petty crime or unearthing garbage bins and it causes some harm to the businesses trying to make a living in the downtown core,” said Vik. “At what point can we really depend on the shelter to really come up with some meaningful policies that can take a load off of business that continue to struggle with these issues again and again and again.”
MacDonald said that putting those types of policies in place would leave many individuals without access to the services offered by the shelter and that the responsibility of the shelter is to help as many people as is possible.
“I think that if we go to hard and fast policies on that, that it is going to put a lot of people outdoors without access to our services,” said MacDonald. “I think you would see a larger population of people who are homeless and living outdoors and living in tents. Shelters, especially for standalone shelters in small communities like ours, it is known to be best practice to try and be as accessible as you possibly can to the homeless population which sometimes presents a lot of challenges. When you have multiple shelters in a community you can have different operating models, when you have one you try and keep the doors open to as many people as possible.”
Mayor Simpson noted that since the COVID-19 restrictions have been put into place at the shelter the RCMP have reported a significant drop in calls for service to the facility.
“So I do think as we look at what model we are talking about relocating a shelter to, I think we need to do a bit of a debrief as to why we have these high calls for service and then we get to this point because of COVID, we restrict public access and our calls for service drop significantly,” said mayor Simpson.
MacDonald said that the recent drop in calls to the RCMP was not solely a result of the shelter being closed to the public, noting that the addition of 13 units secured at the Grace Inn as extra social distancing spaces by B.C. Housing for shelter residents has played a big part.
“It is not just the closure of drop-in services, it’s also the fact that we have social distancing spaces in the community so we just don’t have the same number of individuals with really high needs cramped into one space and that’s something that we have been saying for a lot of years, we need more space, we need more beds and we need housing,” said MacDonald.
Tohill added that as the supportive housing projects move forward he believes that a number of the issues and concerns raised by councillors and community members may be resolved.
I’m always concerned about the whole community and just with the amount of housing that we’ve got going on in Quesnel and the housing we’ve got coming up I think it’s and exciting time and hopefully we will look down the road and see a number of these issues resolved in a positive way, not only for the community but for those who suffer from mental health and addiction issues to be able to get the support that they need,” said Tohill.
In his closing remarks the mayor reinforced the fact that council has a responsibility to the whole community to ensure that the projects move forward in a way that best suits the city and all its residents.
“As a council we have an obligation to the city at large, our obligation goes across a wide spectrum and when we engage in a dialogue in any particulate aspect of the community or its citizens we have to do the balancing act of saying yes but we also have to take into consideration these other things,” said mayor Simpson. “You should know that we are all-in on the housing front and we would like to see appropriate housing for all members of our community as well.”