Abbotsford Dignitarian Society president Jeff Gruban was incensed after council denied a proposal to build 40 small cabins for the homeless on a site on Valley Road. File photo

‘Dignity village’ for homeless rejected by Abbotsford council

Proposal to house 40 people in small cabins in industrial area needs work, politicians say

Concerns about pedestrian safety, noise, the health of residents and a lack of support from other government agencies led council to reject a proposed “dignity village” that would have seen 40 small cabins built to house the homeless.

The Abbotsford Dignitarian Society had asked the city for a temporary-use permit to allow it to place the cabins, along with outbuildings, on a property on Valley Road.

But while councillors applauded the society’s initiative and passion, several said firm commitments would be needed from supporting agencies like BC Housing and Fraser Health for the project to win approval. The project had won the support of local service providers, including Abbotsford Community Services, Mennonite Central Committee and the Lookout Society.

The society’s president, Jeff Gruban, was incensed at the decision, telling the Abbotsford News Tuesday it was the result of a “lack of courage” by local politicians unwilling to have Abbotsford take on such a project without other government agencies.

Staff, including the city’s homelessness co-ordinator, had recommended denying the application.

In addition to lacking BC Housing and Fraser Health support, staff noted several issues with the site of the proposal, which is in an industrial area north of the Highway 11/Sumas Way intersection. There were concerns about how residents would get to and from the site, and about the long-term upkeep and safety of the units.

Coun. Les Barkman said he has toured similar sites, including one in Portland, and noted the importance of nearby services.

“If something like this is to happen, we need wraparound services,” he said.

Couns. Dave Loewen, Sandy Blue and Ross Siemens also expressed some support for the society’s goals, but said they were uneasy with the site and other gaps in the proposal.

Blue said she was “intrigued” by the model, and encouraged the society to continue its work, which could be more appealing at another site and with more buy-in from other stakeholders.

With funding from the federal government, the city is set to launch its co-ordinated intake and referral program this summer. The program hopes to provide a single referral system for services and housing for homeless men and women. Siemens said the city needs to let that proceed without going ahead with a major initiative not supported by other levels of government.

Mayor Henry Braun recused himself from the discussion and vote because he owns a property across from the Valley Road site.

The councillors present voted unanimously against the proposal.

On Tuesday, Gruban called out council for a lack of progress on the homeless issue over the last three years, and doubted the programs being rolled out this summer will significantly reduce the number of people living on the street. He said the location was ideal to minimize disturbances with the surrounding community and reachable for homeless men and women used to walking and biking around town.

“Have some bravery,” he said.

As for the future, Gruban said he personally is done working on the project, although he suggested other society members may continue working with the city.

“I’ve spent three years on this project,” he said. “I see no evidence the city has any interest in supporting this project.”

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