The days are numbered for The Portal homeless shelter.
Council voted Tuesday to give city staff 90 days to investigate a new shelter location – instead of approving 18 more months in the existing location on Yale Road.
Coun. Sue Knott recommended a fresh look at the many vacant buildings around town for potential relocation of the emergency homeless shelter.
“I drive down that road every single day,” Knott said. “I see people staggering around, falling down, ambulances, no masks. People with violent and erratic behaviour. I feel strongly that we made a commitment to the community that if they hung in there for 18 months the facility would be moved.”
The permit for the Portal expires later this month, and the council vote gave the relocation effort another three months. Council also voted to approve beefed-up security around the shelter.
Council had been hearing in great detail from residents, about the nightmare of living next to The Portal while awaiting a new facility to be built by BC Housing, and the many ways it has been taking a terrible toll on them, in more than 100 letters.
Complaints about urination, littering, trespassing, needles, vandalism, open drug use, and noise were sent to city hall ahead of the proposal to renew the shelter’s temporary use permit (TUP) for another year and a half.
“We do owe it to the community, and the time is up for this location,” commented Coun. Chris Kloot. He said his heart ached for those needing this type of housing but it wasn’t fair for folks to feel like hostages in their own home.
There was a lot of talk about “failure” by council, as seen in different ways.
Coun. Jeff Shields stated he felt that they had “failed the neighbourhood” since it’s “like a war zone” with whatever security or safety plan in place has been “failing miserably.”
Coun. Jason Lum made the sweeping statement that they should “never aspire” as a city to be building temporary homeless spaces this way.
“We’ve already failed,” he said, if the trend to build or relocate to emergency shelter spaces continues.
The focus needs to be on putting money into “long-term permanent housing with supports,” Lum underlined.
He said if BC Housing is looking to buy the Travelodge, they should “get on it” and convert it. Other empty buildings? Buy those too, for conversion to supportive housing.
“I want this to be the last shelter the City of Chilliwack ever approves,” Lum stated dramatically.
Mayor Ken Popove said that was the wish of everyone around the council table, and beyond as well.
Popove asked what will happen if they can’t find another space to move to, and added that “more work needs to be done.”
The official word is that no landlord with adequate space for a homeless shelter will lease their property for this purpose. There were some suggestions about sharing the 48 spaces between the Pathways shelter at RAN and the Travelodge, but the plan won’t be known until July 2021.
The Portal has been operating at full capacity since December 2018, so it “fulfills a significant need for shelter space in the community” and it also functions “as a stepping stone” to more permanent housing and provides access to the necessary services and supports, according to the staff report on the TUP.
Deborah O’Keefe was one of the neighbours who wrote mayor and council, asking them not to grant another extension of the permit. Here is part of what she wrote:
“As an owner of a property at the Newmark, I feel that the Mayor and Councillors are failing to recognize that Newmark residents and owners are shouldering undue financial and emotional burdens as a result of the Portal’s extended permit to operate right next door to us,” O’Keeke stated.
Residents are feeling “besieged, frustrated and fearful.”
“I feel the Mayor and Councillors are failing to understand just how beleaguered Newmark residents feel after enduring more than two years of these behaviours from Portal guests,” O’Keefe wrote.
Another Newmark resident, Dustin Fairhurst was one of the original 40 speakers at The Portal’s first permit public hearing in 2019 describing what it’s like living next door. He brought in a bag of weapons he’d confiscated to show council.
Recently he’s emailed letters daily, sending video of what it’s like outside his door to city and BC Housing, as well as The Progress, stating his physical and mental health and life are at risk.
“My right to quiet and peaceful enjoyment has been taken away from me,” Fairhurst wrote. “I don’t feel safe walking in my own neighborhood.
“I can’t let my dog outside to pee without fear of stepping on a needle, or having my dog pick up tinfoil with heroin residue on it, or blood soaked cotton swabs or getting into an altercation with someone from the Portal.”
He says he pours bleach on his steps to disinfect them regularly.
“I can’t sell my home and move, who in their right mind would pay anything close to market value to live next to this?” Fairhurst said, adding his property has dropped $70,000 in value.
“I am a hostage in my own home. Our property is being vandalized regularly, graffiti and spray paint everywhere. Needles, tinfoil, broken meth pipes, tools and weapons found on my strata lot so frequently I am becoming desensitized to it.”
Bill Raddatz, executive director of Ruth and Naomi’s Mission, told The Progress they will continue to manage The Portal “to the best of their ability with no perfect solutions in sight” for the time left.
A new “community liaison coordinator” has been walking the streets since late March to minimize issues, and a grant by the city could see new security coverage.
“That should help an awful lot,” Raddatz said. “We have done everything we can do. And when we leave those who have been blaming The Portal for all the issues in the area will have to come to grips with a wake-up call. Until they completely eliminate drugs and poverty, all the same issues will remain.”
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