Winter homeless shelter to be built in Abbotsford

Riverside Road property site of Thursday's announcement.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun speaks during an announcement of a 40-bed winter shelter to be built on Riverside Road.



A winter shelter for the homeless will be built in Abbotsford on Riverside Road.

At an announcement this morning at the site, just south of the Highway 1 overpass, city and provincial officials said the City of Abbotsford will contribute up to $750,000 to construct a 40-bed shelter, open from mid-December to the end of April. The city will also provide the land for the portable, purpose-built shelter, consisting of six construction-type trailers, at 1640 Riverside Rd. The property is currently an open stretch of land on the east side of the road.

The Gladys Avenue homeless camp on city property will be coming down in mid-January, according to Mayor Henry Braun.

The winter shelter should open close to Christmas this year, and will operate until April 2016. As a planned 20-bed supportive housing development for men on Gladys Avenue won’t be open until 2017, Braun says the winter shelter will likely open again in the fall or winter of 2016.

The provincial government will provide $450,000 to operate the 24/7 facility, which will be run by the Lookout Emergency Aid Society and will provide a range of health and housing support services, including serving three meals a day. The shelter will be “minimal-barrier,” meaning residents are not required to be clean and sober to enter, though drug and alcohol use will not be allowed on the premises. Outreach workers will also connect clients with rental assistance so they can access more stable, long-term housing.

Last year, more than 270 people in Abbotsford were housed through housing rent supplements and shelter services.

The shelter will be built out of six construction bunk trailers, combined and renovated to form one large building with a kitchen, social space and office as well as sleeping quarters. Privacy barriers will be placed between 32 beds intended for men and eight for women, though they can be rearranged if necessary.

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The announcement comes after years of debate, protests, and legal wrangling about homelessness issues in Abbotsford.

In October, a Supreme Court justice issued a ruling that down provisions in city bylaws that ban sleeping overnight in city parks, and the use of temporary shelters or tents. The decision upheld the city’s ability to ban permanent encampments on public land.

Pivot Legal Society, the non-profit law firm representing homeless activists with the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (DWS) in the trial, said it was happy that the decision affirmed the right to sleep in public places, and take shelter from the elements if need be. The city, meanwhile, was glad the decision still allows them to ban permanent encampments or tent cities, like the protest camp on Gladys Avenue that’s been in place since 2013.

In the trial, which ran for six weeks this June, July and August, DWS argued city bylaws banning sleeping outdoors violated the homeless’ rights to life, liberty and personal security as laid out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

BC Supreme Court Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled that when there aren’t enough shelter spaces in a community, banning sheltered outdoor sleeping violates fundamental rights.

“The evidence shows that there is a legitimate need for people to shelter and rest during the day and no indoor shelter in which to do so,” Hinkson wrote.

Hinkson hewed closely to a similar case regarding a Victoria tent city in 2008 that gave the homeless the right to sleep in parks overnight.

The two parties expect to return to court to seek clarification on the ruling.

The fight between the city and homeless activists, including the DWS, has been a protracted battle. As noted in the court decision, there has long been a shortage of shelter beds available, and tensions mounted between the city and people sleeping outdoors in 2013.

City efforts to disperse clusters of homeless campers escalated. At trial, Hinkson heard that police pepper-sprayed inside tents and city staff spread chicken manure near camp areas, casting widespread negative attention on the city. When the city closed down a tent city that had been erected in Jubilee Park in late 2013, DWS and Pivot announced their intentions to sue the city.

The city has not taken action to remove a tent-city protest camp on Gladys Avenue.

Throughout the trial, DWS advocated not just for the right to camp in parks, but for the city to help create more low-cost housing options, citing the city-sanctioned “Dignity Village” of semi-permanent shelters in Portland, Ore., as a positive example.

Read Friday’s print edition of the Abbotsford News for more details on this story.

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