Housing for homeless proposal polarizes before public meeting

Public information meeting will be held Thursday to discuss proposed low-barrier housing facility

A proposal by ACS to rezone an area on Montrose Avenue to build a supportive housing facility has stirred up controversy in Abbotsford's downtown core.

A proposal by ACS to rezone an area on Montrose Avenue to build a supportive housing facility has stirred up controversy in Abbotsford's downtown core.

Though the proposal for a 20-man facility for homeless men has yet to be presented at a public information meeting – scheduled for Thursday evening – the topic has already polarized stakeholders in Abbotsford’s downtown and the community, leading to a struggle for public support.

Misinformation continues to swirl around Abbotsford Community Services’ (ACS) proposal to build a facility that would provide housing for homeless men, or men at risk of homelessness, for up to two years. The facility is low-barrier, which means it would not require men to be alcohol- and drug-free when they enter the facility – though they must enter into an agreement to address the issues that have contributed to their homelessness, including mental health and substance abuse.

The Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA) quickly came out opposed to the proposal, which would require the site – next to ACS at 2408 Montvue Ave. – to be rezoned out of the “C7” downtown area. The C7 zone prohibits certain commercial, civic and residential uses of downtown properties, and excludes “emergency shelter use and supportive recovery use” in the city’s downtown core.

The proposal was announced in early June, and ACS and the ADBA met on June 12 to discuss the project. The ADBA launched a petition on June 28, providing it to downtown businesses owners to place in their businesses if they wished.

The controversy that arose among residents and business owners led both the ACS and the ADBA to express concern about “misinformation” surrounding the project.

The initial petition from the ABDA stated that the facility had short-term plans for a needle exchange.

Janna Dieleman, community relations officer for ACS, said a needle exchange has never been, nor ever will be, part of the proposal.

On July 4, Tina Stewart, executive director of the ABDA, sent a revised petition to ADBA members that removed the reference to a needle exchange. The accompanying email asked business owners to throw out the previous petition but to keep ones that already had signatures as, “we will keep them.”

The email also stated that ACS had revised the plan for the facility and they (ACS) had “admitted that the men we see on our streets are more than likely not the men that would enter (the) facility.”

Dieleman said that to her knowledge, the proposal has not changed since it was announced in June, and that the information in the email was incorrect.

“The intention was always, and it remains to be, that the priority will be given to men who are living on the streets in Abbotsford, predominantly in the downtown area,” she said.

ACS launched a website – supportivehousing.abbotsfordcommunityservices.com – which includes information about the project, and calls for residents to send letters of support to mayor and council.

The ABDA previously expressed concern that although the project has been in the planning stages for two years, the ADBA was only made aware of it in June. Rod Santiago, executive director of ACS, and Dieleman both said this is because the project is being built in conjunction with BC Housing, which did not allow them to announce the project until June when the details of the proposal were finalized.

Stewart wrote a post on the Abbotsford News website, calling this a “blattant (sic) lie.” Stewart stated she contacted BC Housing, and the provincial agency told her they encourage open conversations between all parties.

The News subsequently spoke with a BC Housing representative, who confirmed that ACS was not able to disclose details of the project until it was finalized, which was in June 2013, when they began planning a public information meeting, which will be held on July 25. The post was later deleted.

When asked about her comments, Stewart said she thinks ACS has also misled the public by comparing the project to other supportive housing units such as the Christine Lamb Residence, a unit for women and children managed by the Women’s Resource Centre of the Fraser Valley, which

unlike the current proposal, requires the women be

alcohol- and drug-free when entering.

“Lying by omission is lying. Comparing two things that are not comparable, comparing this facility to Christine Lamb, is an untruth.”

When asked whom she speaks on behalf of, Stewart said, “I speak as directed by the board of directors (of the ADBA).”

Paul MacLeod, president of the ABDA, said the board does not believe the ACS ever lied about the proposal to the ADBA or the public.

He said the situation is complicated by the

rumours that are circulating.

“We have great respect for community services and we really believe there is a solution to this problem and we’re working on it.”

MacLeod said that ACS and the ADBA have the same goal – the betterment of Abbotsford, part of which is assisting the homeless. He said the issue comes back to the rezoning of the area that is required in order to build the facility, and that the downtown is not the proper place for the development.

Stewart said rezoning for the ACS development is a “dangerous precedent to set.” She said by restricting supportive housing in the downtown, ADBA members “are protected by the C7 zoning … they chose to come to this area because of the zoning.”

The online version of the ADBA’s petition states that the C7 zoning was created to “turn what was once a derelict area of the city into what it is now… by allowing rezoning, a precedence (sic) is set that could easily be the first giant step backwards to where we once were.”

The petition states that no other part of the city explicitly prohibits supportive recovery homes, and questions why the facility could not be built in another area of the city.

Santiago has said that the proposed site is on the edge of the C7 zoning area, and the location is close to the services provided by ACS.

Dieleman added there is an incorrect assumption that the project is a “transition house where … people are here for 30 to 90 days and then gone.”

She said the facility will be the men’s home, and they will be tenants who pay rent and have access to services.

Dieleman said that ACS hopes to have open and honest dialogue about the project with stakeholders and members of the community.

The public is invited to attend an open house, held at Abbotsford Community Services on 2420 Montrose Ave. from 6 to 8 p.m.

Representatives from ACS and the ADBA will be present at the meeting to answer questions regarding the proposal.

Proposal Timeline

•    In 2008, the provincial government and the City of Abbotsford signed a memorandum-of-understanding to develop supportive housing in Abbotsford, in response to a growing need for affordable housing for people who are homeless.

•    The first project that was completed was the Christine Lamb Residence, which opened in May 2012 for women and children. The second project was the George Schmidt Centre, a 30-unit facility for men at risk of homelessness. It opened in February 2013.

•     In September 2011, BC Housing issued an expression of interest to find a non-profit society that could construct and operate a supportive housing development in Abbotsford for individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

•    A Request for Proposals was made to selected organizations in February 2012.

•    The proposals were reviewed in a selection process that included BC Housing staff, City of Abbotsford staff and a community member serving as the Chair of Abbotsford Social Development Advisory Committee.

•    In June 2012, BC Housing and the City of Abbotsford issued a conditional award to Abbotsford Community Services to develop 21 units of supportive housing.

•    In June 2013, Abbotsford Community Services was clear to begin communicating with downtown stakeholders about the project as planning began for a public meeting.

•    The next step is community consultation, beginning with a public information meeting on Thursday, July 25, at Abbotsford Community Services, 2420 Montrose Ave.

Proposal Basics

•    Located at 2408 Montvue Ave.

•    Three-storey, 21-man housing unit, with 20 men who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, and one caretaker.

•    On-site supervision, 24/7

•    Men will be able to live in the facility for up to two years, and are not

subjected to any curfews.

•    The tenant selection committee will include ACS staff, an addictions

specialist, food bank representatives, Abbotsford Police Department, and community members.

•    Facility will meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design

certifications.

•    If approved by the City of Abbotsford and BC Housing, a completed,

occupied building is projected to be in place by the end of 2014, or early 2015.

•    In the Expression of Interest document from BC Housing, the agency 
offered$2.4 million in capital funding for the project, and up to $215,000 in

operating and support services funding annually.

•    The document states that the city will work with the selected society – ACS – and consider reducing development cost charges. The development may also be exempt from property taxes through specific exemptions for supportive 
housing. ACS would provide the land equity for the project.