A housing proposal for homeless men in downtown Abbotsford once again polarized residents at a public hearing that lasted more than five hours on Monday.
Hundreds of people – opponents and supporters – gathered at city hall, with roughly 90 people speaking to council on the proposal for a low-barrier facility that would house 20 men for up to two years.
Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) first announced the proposal in June last year and the issue quickly sparked concerns in the downtown about its proposed location in the C7 zone, which was created to help revitalize the area by restricting certain building uses, such as supportive housing.
But supporters said that while opponents call for another location, there currently is no viable alternative and without approval, BC Housing, which is funding the project, could take the financial support to another community.
Members from the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ABDA) and the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce reiterated their support for a housing proposal, but on a location outside of the C7 zone, citing council’s promise to preserve the zoning, as well as the already high existing concentration of social services.
Downtown residents echoed the concerns about the potential impact of the facility.
Asger Hansen, owner of A & D Music, said his family took a mortgage on their home to begin running their business and chose the downtown for its positive growth.
“If our business fails, we’re done.”
He said his business employs 23 people and he has already heard concerns from parents of children taking music lessons about safety issues if the project goes ahead. Hansen said he’s concerned about the potential for having drug users in the area and the possibility of property crime.
Mike Welte, president of the chamber, said that no group or area should be unduly burdened with many social services, citing the fact that the downtown is already home to many. He said he is 100 per cent behind ACS, and would be there with a shovel to break ground if a new location was found outside the C7 zone.
Supporters cited the city’s need for a low-barrier facility, which would allow residents to enter even if they aren’t free of substance abuse issues. The “housing-first” model aims to deal with the issue of homelessness before addressing other contributing factors such as alcohol and drug use or mental health concerns.
Numerous service agencies and faith leaders spoke in support.
Ross Siemens, the owner of Hub Motor Service in downtown Abbotsford, is a member of the ADBA and on the board of ACS. He said that the ADBA has worked hard to improve the downtown, but the ACS project is a response to a need for housing in the community. Siemens added that rezoning is commonplace and the project would have a housing agreement that would address many of the concerns raised.
Derek Gent, executive director of the Vancity Community Foundation, said that ACS has their full confidence and the foundation will provide financial support in partnership with the Abbotsford Community Foundation, if the project goes forward. He said that the project has the dual purpose of providing housing as well as building a positive and progressive image for Abbotsford.
Council deferred their decision on the project to the Feb. 17 regular meeting.