Questions remain about homeless issues in Abbotsford after ACS discussion

Panel planned for ACS housing proposal, but some attendees look for answers beyond representatives

Community members gathered to raise concerns or state their support for ACS's proposed supportive housing unit.

Community members gathered to raise concerns or state their support for ACS's proposed supportive housing unit.

Over 100 community members gathered at a public meeting to ask Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) and BC Housing about their proposal to build a 21-unit facility to house homeless men in the downtown core.

Concerned community members and supporters of the project all gathered at the Salvation Army Cascade Community Church on Wednesday evening to discuss the proposed low-barrier housing facility at 2408 Montvue Ave. – across from ACS.

Concerns were raised over the impact of the low-barrier, housing-first model – meaning the men would not have to be drug- or alcohol-free when entering the facility – and the level of security that would be provided for the facility and the surrounding community.

Rod Santiago, executive director of ACS, said that the project gives the residents a chance to recover from being on the streets before addressing issues of addiction or mental health, where they can stay in the facility for up to two years. Though the men will not be under curfew, Santiago said that the site will have 24-7 supervision with a staff member present.

Santiago added that ACS’s proposal is only one piece of solving the issue of homelessness in Abbotsford, but will provide a solution for 20 men at a time.

Questions were raised as to why the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA), which has opposed the project since its announcement due to its proposed location within the city’s downtown C7 zone – which has a specific set of bylaws that prohibit supportive recovery use – were not on the panel. ACS responded that the meeting was voluntarily organized to allow questions to ACS and the provincial agency BC Housing, who have partnered on the project.

Mitch Miller, who owns a restaurant in the downtown core, said he remembers when issues like prostitution and homelessness were prevalent downtown. Miller said he already experiences “eat-and-run” customers and is worried that could increase with more homeless people in the area. He said he is skeptical about the proposal and the impact on his business and the safety of his staff, who often leave the restaurant late in the evening.

Kathy Doerksen, an ACS staff member, said if anything criminal occurred, police would be contacted. But for any issues between men in the facility and businesses downtown they would work together to make reparations or solve the conflict.

Jim Burkinshaw, an Abbotsford resident for 51 years, said he has seen the ups and downs of the downtown core. He said after speaking to businesses near a similar project in New Westminster that have not been negatively affected by the addition of supportive housing, he is convinced the proposal would be a good addition in Abbotsford.

“I applaud what has gone on in the last decade for improving downtown and I don’t want to go back to the bad days,” he said. “Which is why I support this proposal.”

Paul MacLeod, president of the ADBA, said their organization shares the community’s concern about homelessness, but the C7 zoning was designed over a decade ago to give assurance and protection to small business owners to move into the formerly derelict downtown.

He asked how the ADBA can explain to their membership that the city will go back on its word and put supportive housing where they said it would never be built.

ACS and BC Housing were called on to address  concerns on security and impact to neighbouring homes and businesses, but community members also looked for answers from other sources.

Though members of the city and council were not part of the panel, Mayor Bruce Banman was called on to answer questions by Dr. Elizabeth Dow, director of the school of social work at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV).

Dow said that communities never have enough resources to deal with social problems and Abbotsford needs to look to higher levels of government. She asked Banman if he would consider bringing in other levels of government and make Abbotsford a leader in addressing homelessness.

Banman took to the microphone, saying that is what he has already been trying to do, adding that solving homelessness is a “monumental task.”

“How you tackle this is one bed and one room at a time,” but said the big issue becomes how to do it and where to put it.

Banman said a lot of people have placed the issue of homelessness and mental health on the city, when they don’t have the expertise to address the problems without the helps of other groups. He added that the homeless people themselves have to be part of their solution and ready to ask for help, in addition to finding other partners.

“It requires the province, it requires the federal government, it requires faith-based groups… everybody has to get together.”

Banman declined to answer further questions that came from the audience.

Burkinshaw returned to the microphone, pointing out that the province was present in the form of BC Housing, which would contribute the $2.4 million capital investment, plus over $200,000 a year in operating fees  to the project.

“We talk about levels of government – they’re here,” he said, adding that they should be thanked for coming to the table.

Naomi Brunemeyer, of BC Housing, said that in other communities that work with BC Housing, cities donate the land. After completing two of three projects of BC Housing’s agreement with Abbotsford on city land – the Christine Lamb Residence and George Schmidt Centre – the third project had to be chosen with an organization that owned property in the downtown. She added that it was never indicated that the C7 zone should be excluded.

“We selected, in partnership with the City of Abbotsford, this project, knowing the site, knowing the location, and knowing the fact that it needed to be rezoned.”

Though the possibility of finding another location has been proposed, both ACS and BC Housing say a feasible alternative has yet to be presented.

Santiago said he is concerned about the prospect of choosing an alternative site, only to experience the same situation of other groups, residents and community members calling for the project to be relocated.

The meeting came to an end, but questions remained for some community members.

Darryl Plecas, the newly-elected MLA for Abbotsford South, announced at the meeting UFV will host a panel called Everybody Wins: Positive and Affordable Solutions to Abbotsford’s Homeless Challenge in the lecture theatre on Nov. 15 from 7  to 9 p.m.

Plecas said he will be on the panel along with representatives from ACS and the ADBA, representatives from the city of Chilliwack, Burkinshaw as a representative of the Abbotsford Christian Leader’s Network and possibly a representative from the city of Abbotsford and residents of supportive housing developments.