Cranbrook city council has passed third reading and adoption of a zoning amendment to facilitate a proposed homeless shelter at a property near the downtown core during a special meeting on Monday night.
After a first-of-it’s-kind public hearing conducted by telephone due to physical distancing regulations in place while being live-streamed online, city council voted 5-2 to approve the zoning change, which will permit operation of a homeless shelter at 209 16th Ave. N.
The shelter will be funded provincially by BC Housing and operated by the Community Connections Society of Southeast B.C., through an agreement with the property owner, Terry Segarty of 2 Baker Developments.
The shelter will feature 40 sleeping pods, washrooms, a kitchen and an overdose prevention space, where registered shelter guests can use substance they’ve sourced themselves, while being monitored by staff trained with nalaxone to prevent overdose outcomes.
There will be an outside space with picnic tables and gazebos that will be fenced off for privacy.
Following the hearing, council discussed the proposal, as all of mayor and council chimed in with their perspectives and reasoning behind their support or opposition to the zoning amendment.
Councillors John Hudak, Ron Popoff, Norma Blissett, Mike Peabody and Wayne Price voted in favour, while Mayor Lee Pratt and Wes Graham were opposed.
Coun. Blissett has been a vocal supporter of the zoning change since it was brought before the council table, noting the city’s urgent need of a homeless shelter in many public meetings over the last two months.
“There’s no debating that we need a homeless shelter and it’s my hope that the staff at the shelter will be able to work with their clients and that most of the negative impacts that we are currently experiencing in Cranbrook will be lessened as a result,” said Coun. Blissett.
“I think this will be a very good thing for Cranbrook, a very good thing for all of the community.”
Everyone who voted in favour of the zoning amendment at 209 16th Ave. N, as well as those in opposition, acknowledged the need for a homeless shelter in Cranbrook.
Following the vote, Coun. Price acknowledged the tension that the issue has caused in the community, noting that everyone at the city council table has the community’s best interests at heart no matter who voted in support or opposition.
“I look around the room, and there’s not one bad person in this room,” said Price. “If it’s 5-2, it doesn’t matter. If you’re on the side in the five, [they] have the best interest in the community at heart. And the two? They have the best interests in the community at heart. Our approach is different, and I hope that the public, at the end of the day, will support the decision that council makes and move forward and try and support it.”
Pratt also pleaded for decorum on social media.
“For the people that want to abuse me, go ahead, it doesn’t matter, because I don’t really take offence by it,” Pratt said. “But I do wish that you would stop it, and realize that you’re not doing anything. You’re not helping the situation, there’s nothing that’s going to come out of your comments other than other people engaging with you and it means nothing.”
At the end of the meeting, Coun. Graham issued a notice of motion that city staff engage with BC Housing to work towards developing a site for permanent supportive housing, noting that the proposed shelter is only for temporary housing.
Council weighs feedback, debates proposal
Coun. Hudak kicked off the discussion after the public hearing, saying ANKORS — the AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society — has been operating out of the same building at the proposed location for the last five years, providing needle exchanges, drug checking and other harm reduction services.
Hudak said if the zoning amendment was approved, homeless clientele would be able to access support right at the same location.
A former RCMP officer, Hudak also addressed the stigma of homelessness and substance use, noting he had walked the streets and talked with homeless people in Cranbrook, without having a negative interaction with anyone.
“Many of the homeless are not on the needle, to use street terminology, and to cast them as such is, in fact, irresponsible and uninformed,” said Hudak. “They have other issues for why they’re in a homeless situation. Yes, there are people who are in a drug dependency and some of them do use the needle, but they’re far many more that have other issues…”
Coun. Wayne Price addressed issues of adequate reviews and legal liabilities, noting the city received a letter from David Eby, the province’s Attorney General and minister responsible for housing, encouraging that council endorse the proposed shelter at that particular location.
“I would suspect that the Attorney General is the senior legal authority for the province of British Columbia. If he’s urged us to go forward, and his ministry is overseeing this, I feel relatively secure and safe with concerns for legal liabilities against the City.
“The city is just passing zoning. It’s not our operation.”
That drew a quick response from Mayor Pratt.
“That was totally an abuse of his position,” said Pratt. “He’s a minister in a provincial government and he’s using his position of trying to influence a decision on this council sitting around here trying to make a decision for the municipality and the citizens of our city.
“I’m just going to go on-record here to say, I’m not going to be representing the City of Cranbrook as a mayor, but I will be trying to contact the Attorney General and I will be discussing that abuse of power with him and Premier [John] Horgan and the Minister of Municipal Affairs [Selina Robinson].”
Coun. Ron Popoff said his main concern was if the shelter was a good fit for the neighbourhood, and spoke about the amount of research he conducted and conversations he had with the public and stakeholders.
He noted that providing housing is the responsibility of BC Housing and that a third-party will be operating the shelter.
“I’m going to personally hold them accountable,” said Coun. Popoff. “If they’re saying that this is a good neighbourhood and they’re going to be good neighbourhood citizens and all these real or perceived fears out there, we’re going to hold them accountable and I hope senior staff will hold them accountable as we move through this.
“The bottom line is, I think this is the right thing to do.”
Coun. Mike Peabody lauded the social services on site and said he spoke with representatives from shelter operations in Chilliwack and Penticton that were located near schools that weren’t cause for community complaints.
“I recognize too that we’re also in a position of privilege,” said Coun. Peabody. “We are deciding if people less fortunate than us can live beside a hockey arena, if they can live beside a high school, and we need to recognize that. These are not all bad people; there are some people with issues. But guess what? There’s services right there to help them with those issues, so for me, I cannot think of a better location because of that.”
A teacher at Mount Baker Secondary School, located across form the proposed site, Coun. Norma Blissett said she takes classes to the an area behind the Operation Street Angel near the skatepark, which offers similar services to those from CCSSBC, and has never run into any issues.
A question of process
Process was a key point for those in opposition.
In this particular case, a private landowner and BC Housing negotiated an agreement proposing to use the 209 16th Ave property as a potential homeless shelter, then approached the city requesting a zoning change to permit that particular land-use on that particular property.
This wasn’t wasn’t a situation to consider other properties for a potential homeless shelter because that was not the issue in front of council.
A private landowner applied for a zoning change on one specific piece of property, and council had to decide whether to approve or deny it.
Pratt said there wasn’t a process from BC Housing that included the city input in determining suitable locations for a homeless shelter.
“They [BC Housing] got an application from a landowner in Cranbrook who saw opportunity and a need and he approached them to sign up a deal with them, and without discussion including us, they went ahead and accepted a proposal from one person,” said Pratt.
The mayor also took issue with substance use on site and the proposed overdose prevention measures, noting that if members of the public are caught with illegal drugs, they are arrested by police and prosecuted.
“Get them the help they need to get off this terrible cycle of addiction. Do not continue to enable it,” he said.
Pratt argued that the city needs a large permanent facility to manage the homeless population, with amenities such as private rooms and related support services to build self-worth and self esteem to “get back on their feet and become contributors to society.”
He also suggested a motion for staff to engage with BC Housing regarding that particular need, before Graham moved his motion following the vote.
A first-of-it’s-kind public hearing
The public hearing before the vote was a first-of-it’s-kind in the pandemic era, as people submitted feedback over the phone rather than in person due to COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions that council chambers is unable to accommodate.
A few dozen callers phoned in to provide feedback on the issue, which quickly turned into a referendum about the need for a homeless shelter in Cranbrook, rather than specific comments about the zoning amendment for 209 16th Ave N.
Mayor Pratt had to steer many callers who were making general comments about homelessness in the community to focus their feedback on the specific property at the centre of the discussion.
Common concerns from those in opposition included security, drug paraphernalia around the Memorial and Kinsmen arenas and surrounding neighbourhoods, and the location in proximity to recreation facilities and Mount Baker Secondary School.
Two former Cranbrook mayors, Ross Priest and Wayne Stetski, participated in the hearing, lending their support of the rezoning amendment, citing the myriad of existing services offered by the CCSSBC in the adjacent building.
Shelley Balfour, representing the Cranbrook and Fernie Teachers’ Association and the East Kootenay District Labour Council, also spoke in favour of the zoning amendment.
One caller didn’t offer a position on the zoning amendment, but requested council delay making a decision until further questions could be answered publicly by officials, as well as a full review of the potential sites in Cranbrook that could serve as a homeless shelter location.