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Abbotsford Quashes Housing Project for Homeless Men

'I think we've put the city back 10 years,' says councillor of decision.

By Rochelle Baker 18 Feb 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Rochelle Baker is a long-time community journalist in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley with a particular interest in human rights and social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter @RochelleBaker1.

Gasps swept through the packed auditorium as Abbotsford city council rejected a supportive housing project for homeless men after a tie vote on Monday night.

Referring to himself as King Solomon, Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman cast the vote that ultimately scuttled plans for a 20-bed facility proposed by BC Housing and Abbotsford Community Services (ACS).

After quashing the proposal, council decided to petition Fraser Health, BC Housing and the province to fund the construction and operation costs for a supportive housing project at the former MSA Hospital site on MacCallum Road.

"This is disgusting! Truly disgusting!" yelled a man following the decision, as the mayor pounded the gavel for order.

In denying the ACS project, the council put $15 million in provincial funding at risk. The decision is the latest in an ongoing series of confrontations between city council and Abbotsford's marginalized residents.

Last summer Abbotsford gained national notoriety after city workers dumped chicken manure at a homeless camp.

Abbotsford police officers were also accused of slashing tents and pepper-spraying belongings at other homeless camps, which has led to a number of lawsuits in small claims courts.

Banman publicly apologized for the manure debacle, but the city has since repeatedly used bylaws and court injunctions to displace homeless camps, citing health and safety concerns.

Proposal lacked consultation: mayor

The ACS "housing first" proposal was advocated as a means to get a roof over the head of hard-to-house men who may struggle with addiction.

BC Housing had committed $2.4 million in capital and $215,000 annually over 60 years for operating costs, while ACS offered to donate the land valued at $250,000.

The Abbotsford Downtown Business Association, backed by the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce, vehemently opposed the initiative.

The association argued the facility would return the downtown core to its former derelict state by driving up crime and pushing merchants from the area.

The association also didn't want to see exceptions to the current C7 zoning bylaw downtown, which doesn't permit emergency shelters or supportive recovery uses.

Banman said he recalled the condition of the downtown core years ago and was concerned about mom and pop businesses that had invested everything in the area.

Nobody asked stakeholders in the downtown area what they thought of the proposal before it reached such an advanced stage, he said.

"Had we bothered to consult talk and negotiate with one another, this angst could have been avoided," Banman said.

"The need [for housing] is great, but I can't support a system that doesn't even bother to consult its neighbours."

Some councillors 'crushed'

Coun. Henry Braun, referring to the constant dispersal of homeless people as the "Abbotsford shuffle," noted city council had actively engaged BC Housing and ACS in the consultation process at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Condemning council's new site proposal as a red herring, Braun said he's convinced provincial funding would no longer be available to the city.

"This is a wild goose chase, a straw man… we have no authority to tell Fraser Health what to do," said Braun. "I'm very disappointed we've done this. I think we've put the city back 10 years."

A spokesperson said Housing Minister Rich Coleman was not available for comment Tuesday. A spokesperson for BC Housing stated the organization had worked closely with the City in accordance with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that had been in place since 2008.

"It is unfortunate that the City chose not to proceed with the project after all of the work that has gone into it," responded BC Housing in an emailed statement.

"The Province will now consider our options for the funding that had been allocated to the project -- we only partner with communities that support housing projects."

With encouragement from council, BC Housing had invested $159,000 in the development costs for the rejected project, not including costs incurred by ACS.

Coun. Patricia Ross was "crushed" by the decision to reject the ACS project.

"You're dreaming and you've just gambled people's lives away," said Ross of the new site proposal, adding: "Even if it does happen… It's years away and we need it right now."

Coun. Dave Loewen, who'd fought tears describing his brother's homelessness and lonely death as a result of addiction in an effort to convince other councillors to support the project, was also dismayed.

"It's a very sad day for me personally and for the city as a whole," said Loewen.

Any private sector partner Fraser Health chose to help develop the site wouldn't be likely to agree to a supportive housing project, he said.

Vote reflects city track record: pastor

John Smith, who voted against the project along with councillors Les Barkman and Bill MacGregor, was optimistic the province would transfer the funding to the new site.

Drug addiction and mental health were the province's responsibility and Victoria "should be highly motivated to work with us," he said.

He proposed that an even bigger facility, with up to 40 beds, could be built at the site.

ACS executive director Rod Santiago was disheartened the well-being of the men who stood to gain from the facility was frustrated by a single vote.

"I'm disappointed that 20 men will continue to be on the street at the end of the year when they could have had a roof over their heads," he said.

Other advocates for the project weren't shocked by council's decision.

Ward Draper, a pastor with 5 and 2 Ministries that tends Abbotsford's street population, said it reflected the city's track record on homelessness.

Abbotsford rejected a similar men's housing facility in central Abbotsford in 2009 after residents argued it would degrade the neighbourhood.

Council's alternate plan for a low barrier residence at the new site, slated to house hundreds of seniors and surrounded by three schools, will never come to fruition, Draper believes.

"The homeless aren't going to be surprised. They are already aware of how they aren't valued in this community," said Draper.

"Abbotsford likes to believe we have this reputation for caring and charity but we continue to shit on the less fortunate.

"Pun intended."  [Tyee]

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