The debate over the location of the downtown homeless shelter known as The Portal was taken up by Chilliwack Board of Education trustees at a special meeting last week.
Trustee Darrell Furgason put forth a resolution at the Oct. 9 meeting to get the school district to send a letter to the City of Chilliwack asking for The Portal to be relocated.
Furgason argued that the location west of Chilliwack Middle School and Chilliwack Secondary School “is endangering the well-being of our students.”
After a vigorous debate with Furgason supported by trustees Heather Maahs and Barry Neufeld, the motion was defeated in a 4-3 vote.
The move to send a letter may or may not have any effect anyway, but city council is set to decide on the three-year extension of The Portal’s temporary-use permit at the Oct. 15 meeting.
Opposition to sending the letter came in different forms, with board chair Dan Coulter suggesting it was unnecessary since the district already has ongoing communication with city hall and Ruth & Naomi’s Mission, who operate the shelter, something confirmed by acting superintendent Rohal Arul-pragasam.
Trustee Jared Mumford said he opposed the wording of the proposed letter, wishing it be worded differently. If there was a suggestion to recommend foot patrols before and after school, for example, Mumford said he could support it but just to deny the permit is unreasonable.
Trustee Willow Reichelt similarly opposed the recommendation, suggesting it was based on a mistaken premise that The Portal is causing problems. Until recently, Reichelt lived in the area and said open drug use and drug deals are nothing new and the facility is helping rather than making things worse.
“People are seeing an increase in the problems in an area and they are attributing it to The Portal,” Reichelt said. “The Portal is a response to the problems, not the other way around.”
Still, the three opposed to the location were adamant that the location needs to change.
“If there is any possibility that that place makes our students unsafe, we have to say no,” Maahs said. “We have to err on the side of safety for our students.”
Neufeld said further that he has sympathy for street people who are cold and homeless, even adding that he has a grandson who died of a fentanyl overdose, but he insisted the location is wrong.
Swankey suggested that the school district cannot choose who are neighbours to schools, and that opposing a shelter in the community is not part of the board’s mandate.
“This matter is beyond our purview,” he said.
Regardless of the board’s decision to send a letter or not, city council will decide at the meeting Tuesday evening whether or not to extend the permit. A vocal group opposed to The Portal have promised to rally outside city hall before the meeting.