Shelter proposal fuels debate

Monday's public hearing and meeting should end with council voting on the rezone application for a downtown extreme shelter in Terrace, B.C.

NOT SINCE city council was asked to make a significant financial contribution to help the non-profit My Mountain Co-op group buy the Shames Mountain ski facility five years ago or when it was asked to approve additional slot machines at the Chances gaming centre a year later can mayor Carol Leclerc remember such a vigorous public debate as what is happening now over a proposal to rezone an empty office building downtown so it can be turned into a homeless shelter.

Speaking last week, Leclerc said she and the six council members continue to weigh information and opinions to make “the best decision for Terrace.”

“I am staying as open minded as I can. I am hearing people speaking passionately on both sides… and just listening really carefully, and we will continue to do up until the public hearing,” she said.

That public hearing reference concerns a continuation of council’s consideration of the rezoning proposal being made by the Ksan House Society.

Council chambers were crowded and people spilled into the hallway outside April 11 when a consultant hired by Ksan outlined what is planned for the former Northern Drugs office building downtown on Lazelle Ave. located between Canada Post and Terrace Interiors.

With just half an hour alloted for the public hearing, council adjourned proceedings so it could begin its regular meeting and has now scheduled a continuation April 25 at the much larger banquet room at the Terrace Sportsplex.

A petition opposing the rezoning, citing the proposed location as being unsuitable,  has approximately 750 names on it while more than 250 people have indicated their support.

At stake is Ksan’s plan to operate a homeless shelter, sometimes called a “damp” shelter because it allows in people who have been drinking, during the cold weather months and perhaps year round contingent upon financing.

It also envisions offering social services programs at the location.

“When we were changing the gaming centre bylaw, definitely. And when My Mountain Co-op wanted the city to give them I think it was $200,000 at the time. That had a lot of people in the audience as well. They received $15,000 at the time,” said Leclerc.

Strong opinions can sometimes lead to some sort of compromise and Leclerc said she has not made up her mind yet about the shelter location.

“I think that each council person is going to weigh carefully what they are hearing and decide in their heart what’s best for Terrace,” she said.

“People have talked about ideas and nothing has been officially discussed, and perhaps there might be a better location, honestly I don’t know.”

The April 11 hearing began with a presentation by Ksan consultant Kelly Sims who said a shelter would “decrease emergency phone calls, emergency room visits and hospitalization. It will decrease street homelessness during extreme weather conditions, it will reduce police calls for nuisance and for loitering. It will also mitigate adverse health outcomes.”

She painted a picture of a shelter that would be well-staffed and provide an important stepping stone for homeless people to get off the streets. By providing the homeless shelter, they can get a step up in the pursuit of more permanent accommodation, Sims added.

With a 16 per cent increase in the homeless population counted in the past two years and the prospect of over 130 by 2020 if the trend continues, Sims said the need for a shelter is pressing. Downtown locations work well, she added, providing examples in Victoria.

Contrary to what people think about safety, homeless people are in fact more vulnerable to violence themselves, said Sims.

The shelter would also provide a place for people to shower and the groundwork to providing proper sleeping and eating facilities lacking at the All Nations Centre on Davis and Sparks where Ksan has rented space the past two winters.

Sims introduced Joe Keeler, a formerly homeless person who spoke of the benefits a shelter has provided him in helping him on the right track toward stable accommodation.

The only other person to speak April 11 was city planner Tara Irwin who told council members 242 comments came in by email in favour of the rezoning, while fewer than ten emails were received against.

The city report on the rezoning proposal prepared for council indicated support of a downtown location for a shelter.

“We also recognize the proposed location would need to be carefully and properly managed,” said Irwin.

The petition opposing the rezoning has not been submitted to city council yet but a copy has been given to city staffers.

A recommendation from the Terrace Downtown Improvement Area group whose membership does not approve of the location because they think it would perpetuate a problem has also not been presented.

It suggests a location away from the downtown could be sought.

According to Terrace and District Chamber of Commerce president Val Gauvin who was at the April 11 hearing, the chamber does not approve of rezoning downtown buildings for public use.

“If business is to invest in commercial real estate, we have to be able to depend on city council to not change zoning,” she said afterwards.

Sims suggested a collaboration between business and Ksan: “a charter between the business sector and the Ksan management on how issues and communication can be resolved if any incidents occur.” She said different groups can pull together and solve the homelessness problem.

Ksan has an accepted offer to purchase the building, contingent on a successful rezoning. Its sales price is listed at $479,900. The society has yet to indicate whether it has the financing in place to make the purchase.

The public hearing will continue at 5 p.m. on Monday, April 25 in the banquet room of the Terrace Sportsplex.

The city has established a sign-up list for those wishing to speak and written submissions are also being taken until late in the day of the hearing date.

The time limit for all speakers, including those representing groups, is 5 minutes.

Depending upon the length of the public hearing presentations, council is scheduled to begin its regularly-scheduled council meeting, also at the banquet room, beginning at 7:30 p.m.

The rezoning proposal to change the building’s designation from commercial to institutional use, which would take the form of a bylaw, was given first and second reading March 14, setting in motion the public hearing process. Third reading of the bylaw and the vote to adopt the rezoning or not is scheduled to take place at the April 25 council meeting.