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Mayor Banman speaks on homelessness issues in Abbotsford

Following the rejection of a proposal for a 20-bed supportive housing project for homeless men, Mayor Bruce Banman said the city will soon release a strategy for addressing homelessness.

During an interview Wednesday, Banman said the plan would contain short- and long-term plans, but did not provide details.

The Abbotsford Community Services (ACS)  proposal failed on a tied council vote, and has led to concerns that the more than $15 million in provincial funding for the project will now be used in another community.

Banman said he has instructed city staff to do everything they can to keep the money in the community. As for the city’s next step to address Abbotsford’s increasingly high-profile homelessness issues, that plan will be up for council debate soon.

“I have directed staff to work on a strategy and (supportive housing) will be one of the scenarios within that strategy, and that will be coming before council by March.”

Banman voted against the proposal, citing the concerns of the downtown businesses and residents, and the need to protect the C7 zone – which prohibits supportive housing downtown.

He said residents in the area did not want the facility, and “I based my decision on that neighbourhood.”

Banman has called the BC Housing process flawed, because  it did not allow for community consultation before June of last year, as set out by its criteria. He said that had BC Housing permittedt earlier neighbourhood consultation, perhaps a lot of the controversy could have been avoided.

“I think that if the process were different, I think in this particular case, we may have had a different outcome.”

His claim of a flawed process was refuted by Coun. Henry Braun this week, who said it followed the same protocol as two other similar housing projects which have been built in Abbotsford.

After the denial of the ACS proposal, council decided to explore the possibility of supportive housing on the former MSA Hospital site on McCallum Road, owned by Fraser Health.

Though the memorandum-of-understanding with BC Housing calls for the city to provide land for supportive housing, Banman said as mental health and housing are provincial mandates, he hopes Fraser Health will consider giving land for a project.

Fraser Health has stated that it will consider social housing for the site, but has not confirmed any intention.

If Fraser Health provided property, it would also require rezoning and public consultation. When asked whether that could create an issue for the neighbourhood, Banman said residents of that area would have the opportunity to speak on the issue.

“I do believe, however, that considering it was a former hospital site, which dealt with many of these issues, including mental illness, I don’t think that there will be the same level of debate.”

Asked what is being done about the homeless camps currently spread across the city, Banman said “the city will continue with any policy that it has. Camping overnight in public parks, like in many cities, is not allowed and we will work one-on-one with individuals to try and find places for them to be.”

In the meantime, the city still has several highly visible homeless camps on Gladys Avenue, including a large teepee that was relocated there following the eviction of a homeless protest camp from Jubilee Park that lasted for months.

Banman said the city learned from its experiences with the Jubilee Park camp that there is a process to follow. That camp was only evicted following a court-ordered injunction.

“We will go through what procedures are legally required and we will see what happens at the end of the day … What the city can’t do is just forcibly evict people when (the city) doesn’t have the legal right to do so.”

When asked if city hall is currently seeking legal action for that camp, Banman said staff is currently working on a strategy to deal with the teepee.

In September of last year, camps on Gladys Avenue were moved after they were deemed a health hazard by Fraser Health.  Banman said they are being monitored for health concerns, but to his knowledge, none have been raised.

He said the city has met with stakeholders and police to discuss how to deal with the current camps and there is consensus that there must be “more compassion and understanding,” with efforts put into finding places for the homeless to go “rather than just moving them from place to place.”

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