Kevin MILLS and Alex BUTLER
A proposed 20-unit housing project for homeless men is receiving some stiff opposition from the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA).
The group is calling for the public to oppose the proposal, put forth last month by Abbotsford Community Services (ACS), and has given businesses petitions that customers can sign. Though some businesses have put out the petitions, others have decided against displaying it, or are waiting for more information.
The proposed facility would provide housing for up to two years for homeless men. It would be a low-barrier facility, meaning those who use drugs or alcohol would not be turned away. If eventually approved, the facility would be located at 2408 Montvue Ave., just behind the ACS parking lot in the downtown area.
Tina Stewart, executive director of the ADBA, said the association is not opposed to helping the homeless or at-risk citizens, but is opposed to the rezoning of the site out of the downtown zone, which would mean that the ADBA would have no say with what happens there and how. She is also said that ACS has been working on this proposal for two years, but ADBA only found out about it a month ago, calling some of the information in the proposal “misleading.”
In a press release, the ADBA stated “the small businesses that make up the ADBA have struggled through the hard times that all small businesses have struggled through in the last several years; but certainly didn’t see this battle on the horizon.”
It calls for public support against the proposal and notes that petitions will be available to sign at most downtown businesses. Stewart said the many businesses have already said that if the project goes ahead, they will move their businesses out of downtown.
According to the press release from ADBA, members “feel this will not just affect downtown Abbotsford, but they believe this type of facility, which will be filled with tenants from around the Lower Mainland, will have an adverse ripple effect on the entire city of Abbotsford.”
Opinions and actions among downtown business owners are varied.
Robynn McFarlane, who recently became the owner of the nearby Champagne & Lace, said she is concerned about the proposal, but has not put out the petition for her customers because she feels there is misinformation surrounding the issue.
MacFarlane said she feels there has been a lack of communication between the organizations, and all downtown stakeholders should be on the same page before the issue goes further.
“I believe we need to be informed properly.”
Dawn Bishop, owner of Lady Fern Athletics, said she is against the proposal, adding that business owners have put much time and effort into transforming the downtown core.
“To actually have a house down here where there are active alcoholics and drug addicts … I think this is the wrong area for it.”
Bishop plans to attend future meetings in order to voice her opinion on the issue and hear from other stakeholders.
Jason Nicholas, owner of Champion Jack’s Emporium, said he supports the housing project, saying he believes Abbotsford needs that type of facility, and that all people “deserve a second chance.” But despite his support, he said information he has received regarding the project – from both sides – has been lacking.
Rod Santiago, executive director of ACS, said he also believes there’s been a “fair bit of misunderstanding” regarding their proposal.
“It’s not a shelter, it’s their home. It’s a place of residence where they will also be supported to address the issues they are dealing with.”
He called it a housing-first initiative, which means they provide a roof over people’s heads first and then deal with the issues that contributed to making them homeless, whether that is mental health, physical health or addictions.
Santiago noted that the location would be “on the outskirts” of the downtown area and the facility would be staffed every day until 9 p.m. and have a caretaker on site at all times. He added that having the facility in that location keeps it close to ACS where additional services would be available.
He said it will not be a place where residents can do anything they want – there would rules to be followed and agreements to be signed before they can help develop an individual plan to get people where they need to be.
Santiago said they will “take people as they are” upon entry, and then work to solve their issues.
“There will be no illicit drug use permitted on the premises. The drinking will be monitored and restricted to an appropriate level. The difference being that drinking is not illegal,” said Santiago.
He said residents will still be dealing with their addiction issues, but rather than it running rampant and without control on the streets, they will have goals and support.
He assures critics there will not be a needle exchange on site, nor will there be large congregations of people in the area. He added there are numerous measures to ensure security.
Santiago wants the opportunity to talk with the ADBA about the initiative and set some of those fears to rest. ACS – located at 2420 Montrose Ave. – will host an open house on the proposal on July 25 from 6 to 8 p.m., and the public is welcome to attend and ask questions. The issue will also be discussed at Wednesday’s ASDAC (Abbotsford Social Development Advisory Committee) meeting at 10 a.m. at city hall. The housing initiative will eventually go before city council for approval of zoning changes.