City hall. Black Press file photo.

OPINION: Cranbrook needs a homeless shelter

Whether at 209 16th Ave. N or in another location, the city is in desperate need of a year-round shelter

Cranbrook needs a permanent homeless shelter.

It’s undeniable at this point to state otherwise, given the rise in the city’s homeless population and the ongoing housing affordability crisis for market rental units or home ownership.

A point-in-time count in 2020 identified 63 individuals experiencing homelessness, an alarming increase from 29 individuals from a previous point-in-time count two years ago.

A permanent homeless shelter is a long-running need in the community. Traditionally, in years past, the Salvation Army had run a cold weather shelter; however, the organization could not operate it this year due to COVID-19 requirements from BC Housing.

That cold-weather shelter historically operated for 12 hours a day over the course of the winter months, shutting down in the spring and summer and fall seasons.

The city recently conducted a comprehensive housing needs study that identified a number of gaps in the housing continuum in Cranbrook, one of which was a permanent, year-round homeless shelter.

But in the context of what’s being proposed at 209 16th Ave. N, it’s important to understand a few key points.

First, the role of various levels of government.

It is not the responsibility of municipal government to provide homeless shelters. That is a provincial government responsibility, one typically addressed through BC Housing, a provincial crown corporation.

In this particular proposal, city council is wrestling with a rezoning application that would change the property’s land-use designation to allow for the operation of a homeless shelter.

That’s it, from a municipal government perspective. Once the city makes a zoning change to the property allowing the land-use to include homeless shelter operations, any further shelter-related operational decisions are made by the province, BC Housing, Community Connections Society of Southeast BC (the shelter operator), and the building’s owner, who is leasing out the space.

It is not incumbent on municipal government to find, or fund, a property or building for a homeless shelter.

A proper understanding of the process is critical to having an informed discussion or debate about the shelter.

Those in opposition say, “The shelter needs to go somewhere else!”

That statement is a fundamental misunderstanding of the process that is currently underway. This is a zoning amendment application for a piece of property brought forward by a landowner who wishes to sign an agreement with BC Housing and CCSSBC that would facilitate the operation of a shelter.

It’s a private citizen requesting that local government allow that particular piece of property to be used as a homeless shelter.

When someone says “the shelter needs to go somewhere else!” — fair enough, but what is currently on the table at city hall is a zoning amendment for the specific property at 209 16th Ave N.

Where else should a homeless shelter in this town go? Serious question.

The 209 16th Ave N location has a number of important pieces already in place.

It has BC Housing funding. The property has an existing building with space available for a shelter. It has a landowner willing to lease that space for it’s intended use as a homeless shelter. It has an operator already on site, providing a number of interconnected social, medical and substance use services.

Where else in Cranbrook is there a piece of land with a vacant building or building with enough space to accommodate a shelter and a landowner willing to lease the property or building for that purpose?

BC Housing officials rhetorically asked that question during an information session on Wed. Jan. 13. If anyone in Cranbrook has any ideas for different property or building locations for a homeless shelter, speak up and let BC Housing know.

If the rezoning application for the current proposed site doesn’t pass through council chambers, where else in the city is a suitable piece of property that will suit the needs of BC Housing with a landowner willing to sign a lease?

Would BC Housing be willing to purchase a property and build something? Now, all of the sudden, there’s a huge capital expense to make that a reality — will the province sign off on that?

Again, it is not necessarily up to municipal government to provide those pieces. Local elected officials or administration can facilitate talks or discussions with property or building owners, provincial government representatives and non-profit agencies, but the onus of providing and funding social services and housing rests on the province.

From a regulatory standpoint, the only skin local government has in the game is making land-use decisions for permitted activities on properties within a municipality.

Whether cynical or not, there’s a political element in play here — if city council doesn’t approve the zoning change, the specific proposal for 209 16th Ave N is stalled and council is painted as the villain for killing the project at that location. If council approves the zoning change, and future issues arise with the homeless shelter, council will wear the blame for that in the court of public opinion, even though shelter operations will be conducted by CCSSBC and BC Housing.

There’s another side to the conversation about a homeless shelter beyond government responsibilities and regulations.

There’s a stigma attached to homelessness, typically relating to substance use, mental health, crime and racism.

Homeless individuals and those at risk of homelessness deserve to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect. To simply malign all homeless individuals as addicts or criminals is callous and insensitive.

While a shelter fills the immediate physical need of protection from the elements, interconnected services are critical for providing health care or treatment, if needed, or assistance with accessing more permanent housing solutions.

How we treat the vulnerable is a reflection of our character and values.

A permanent shelter is an urgent need in Cranbrook, whether it’s at 209 16th Ave N. or in another location.

The zoning application, which will involve a public hearing, has been punted to a later date, however, city administration will present a report on homelessness in the community as well as discuss the proposed shelter during a council meeting on Monday, Jan. 18.

We’ll see what happens from there.

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