A request to rezone a hotel in downtown Quesnel to allow supportive housing and emergency shelter use has been quashed by city council.
The unanimous decision to deny second reading to a bylaw to amend zoning at the Ramada Inn, effectively cancelling a Sept. 13 public hearing, was made at a regular council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 6. following a lengthy delegation by BC Housing in which Malachy Tohill and Amy Wong shared a public engagement summary report.
“We’re very pleased with the outcome,” said Quesnel Downtown Association president Gilbert Schotel. “We’re glad that council heard our concerns and the community concerns, and we’re also very pleased with how the community expressed their concerns through the public consultation process.”
BC Housing sought public feedback on the proposed project at 383 St. Laurent Avenue from Aug. 15 to Aug. 29.
During the engagement period there were more than 1,200 community interactions on the project that, if approved, would have replaced emergency covid response shelter currently offered at the Grace Inn and relocate existing programs and services from Seasons House through 45 new supportive homes and up to 15 shelter spaces and 10 extreme weather response spaces.
From the 1,161 feedback forms and 16 open-ended submissions received, 66 per cent of respondents indicated they were ‘very’ unsupportive of the proposal to move shelter and transitional spaces off Carson Avenue to St. Laurent Avenue. More than half of respondents also strongly disagreed permanent supportive homes in downtown Quesnel would help address the city’s homelessness crisis.
The location of the proposal was also one of the main concerns.
“What assurances, what guarantees, what programming can protect neighbourhoods from individuals that may end up in your facility and then be subsequently removed, but they’re not leaving and end up causing harm?” Coun. Mitch Vik asked.
Tohill, the regional director of operations, northern region at BC Housing, admitted that once individuals leave their unit, it is challenging to be responsible for their behaviour outside the complex. However, he said he has been in contact with Northern Health, talking extensively about the support required to keep people housed.
“The mental health and addictions part is a really difficult piece,” he added, noting the proposed Ramada Inn location would include 24/7 access to staff and support services onsite.
Provincial funding for the acquisition and renovation of hotels to provide housing for vulnerable persons temporarily housed as part of B.C.’s Covid response must be used by March 31, 2023.
Tohill and Wong said they received that funding not long ago and had to act quickly.
While Coun. Scott Elliott noted the successes at Bridges Supportive Housing, a partnership between the Quesnel Shelter Support Society and BC Housing on Elliott Street, he said there have also been severe challenges and disturbing behaviour in the area.
“I’m not confident that something right downtown would be any different,” Elliott said.
Wong mentioned the successes of a Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which is formed before the occupancy of such projects in which neighbours, RCMP, business associations and First Nations come together, looking at a collaborative approach to community challenges.
Wong said a CAC at 383 St. Laurent Avenue would be composed during the renovation period.
“In my mind, for a community like ours that is in desperate need of housing, why wouldn’t we start that before?” Elliott said.
”Why couldn’t we get a community advisory committee together beforehand and start having those conversations maybe even before the money is available, so the next time it comes up we can say we’ve got a location or at least we’ve got a game plan with the whole community including First Nations because everyone is affected by this.”
Simpson said three of four local First Nations were opposed to the zoning amendment request for 383 St. Laurent Avenue.
Coun. Laurey-Anne Roodenburg raised concerns about having heard many people unaware of the public engagement period.
She also said she found it difficult to believe BC Housing would be able to redirect the funding to another community and have it used by the March 31 deadline.
“You made a comment around setting up these meetings so when funding does become available in the future, we have the community with a say, and that’s what we want to see happen,” Roodenburg said to Tohill.
“That didn’t happen with this, and I think when you’re looking at the pushback you got from this community, that’s part of the reason why.”
Temporary shelter leased by BC Housing during the COVID-19 pandemic at the Grace Inn is scheduled to end next spring.
Simpson said while BC Housing has a housing-first approach to supporting individuals through various forms of housing, problematic properties typically result, as with Seasons House and Bridges Supportive Housing.
He noted a conversation with a First Nations leader involved with a daycare near Elliott Street and is having to clean up needles and human feces — all things he said was promised would not occur if supportive housing was built.
A denser project in a denser neighbourhood in terms of population and commercial activity, with no specific protection plan for the area, is problematic, Vik added, noting data has indicated an increase in calls for police service near Elliott Street.
“I’ll be frank, I’m disappointed that what we’re getting is a presentation that suggests that we’ve got nimbyism in the community, and it’s up to council to decide what they’re going to do,” Simpson said.
“You’re pinning council to make the decision as to whether or not it works for the community, which then puts us in opposition with each other, and that’s highly unfortunate because we’ve had a very good relationship to date and we’ve had lots of investments from BC Housing.”
Before denying second reading, which would have advanced the zoning amendment request to a Sept. 13 public hearing, Tohill reiterated he was not trying to push something through and that he has great respect for the community.
“I wanted you to know that I chose here because of our strong relationship and the work that we’ve done in this community already and want to continue to do,” he said.“Whatever the outcome, that won’t change any of that in my mind to how we move forward and with options for other housing as we continue to try and meet the needs of all communities.”
Seasons House will continue to provide services, including shelter and transitional spaces, at 146 Carson Avenue.
“The positive takeaway is that we’ve now started a positive dialogue with both BC Housing and city council in terms of working forward to help solve some of our homeless problems and some of the challenges that we see,” Schotel said.
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