Chilliwack council voted to extend the permit for The Portal homeless shelter in the current Yale Road location for another 18 months.
It was a public hearing that stretched well into the night on Oct. 15, ending with a unanimous vote of council coming after 1 a.m. Wednesday.
In the end, council voted to whittle down the original three-year permit to 18 months in a compromise decision. That was after more than 40 people took the microphone at the public hearing to describe the various impacts and perceptions of the downtown homeless shelter in their neighbourhood.
Many voices said the same thing: the work being done at The Portal to help vulnerable people is crucial and much needed in Chilliwack, “but it’s in the wrong location.”
Some thought it should be moved right away, maybe to an industrial part of town.
The issue of public safety came up repeatedly, and many said the young people have the right to feel safe walking to school.
The speakers described the excrement, the needles, and the condoms they’ve found. They talked about people on drugs flailing madly in the streets, screams that pierce the night, the sickening fights, and boomboxes blaring.
Several speakers talked about feeling scared, frustrated, and angry about what this area of Chilliwack has become.
Dustin Fairhurst told council he’d been trying to sell his residential unit for months, and thinks the shelter should be in an industrial area.
“We’re at ground zero,” Fairhurst said, adding the some prospective buyers arriving to view his place wouldn’t even get out of the car when they saw what was going on in the street. He brought a black garbage bag into council chambers and took out three homemade billy club type weapons to show council, saying that he confiscated them from the homeless people living on his balcony.
Supporters pointed out out that the crime, mental health and addictions issues were pre-existing problems downtown before the shelter opened, but back then there was no security on-site, staffing and no services.
“Having The Portal next to schools is not ideal but getting rid of it would only exacerbate the problems of theft, property crime and more,” said Fatima Saidi, a homelessness researcher and crisis intervention specialist.
“Supporting it does not mean saying yes to bad behaviour.”
But one downtown resident said living in the area, it is “an act of resistance as a woman” just to walk around the community.
Anouk Crawford said her kids have become afraid to venture out in the neighbourhood. Her daughter asked if they could move to another part of town.
“Her concerns are not baseless,” Crawford said.
Speakers reported the endless, and visible hard-drug use and brazen drug deals.
Colin Skinner said crime had intensified tenfold since the shelter opened, despite officials who said they had received no complaints or negative feedback about the shelter from the school community.
“Homeless people need to be looked after,” Skinner said, adding it’s the criminals at issue.
“Their rights are no greater than the rights of all.”
Several who stood at the microphone insisted that council should “put children’s safety first,” and a petition had more than 3,800 names in favouring of moving the shelter away from its location near two downtown schools.
Several downtown residents said they supported the location, and The Portal’s extended permit, arguing it actually addresses and solves, rather than creates, the myriad health and social issues plaguing the neighbourhood.
Officials said point blank there were no suitable alternative locations to move to.
Christopher Hunt said Chilliwack deserves recognition for embracing the Housing First model, which is proven best practices backed by research.
“I think we can be proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Hunt said. “And we’re on our way to doing better.”
He suggested it would be preferable to concentrate on getting added services rather that getting sidetracked on the location issue.
Sarah Jarvis remembers when people were always sleeping inside the bank ATM spaces.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” Jarvis said, adding that parents use things that happen as a “teachable moment” for their kids.
More than two years ago when they were first looking for a place to bring people out of the cold, according to Bill Raddatz, Ruth and Naomi’s executive director, there were 40 to 60 people in the streets every night, huddling in alcoves and doorways.
“We went out looking for a facility. We needed a building 5,000 to 6,000 square feet and the only solution was The Portal,” Raddatz said. “It did help. Today they’re less visible.”
Several in the crowd broke out in laughter at that comment.
The Portal residents are often elderly, Raddatz underlined, with half over the age of 50 and forced out on the streets for various reasons.
“I will fight for the seniors and I will fight vividly,” Raddatz said. “Some are sick and can’t afford a place to live and their medicine, so they come to the Mission, and to The Portal. That is our society.”
He said the numbers of seniors in the shelter is growing.
“It’s not the best location but it’s the best we can do,” Raddatz said. They plan to draft a Good Neighbour Agreement, and strike a community advisory committee and move forward with an eye to seeking another location.
When it came time for the council vote, Coun. Bud Mercer told the crowd, “I’m normally considered the hard ass, and maybe 40 years of law enforcement has something to do with that. In this case, what I know to be true is that no one leaving this room will be completely happy with what transpired.”
The important work of the shelter and navigation to services is a necessary part of the recovery “architecture,” Coun. Mercer said.
He along with other councillors said they wouldn’t support three years, but came to agree on 18 months.
“We have heard loud and clear that the downtown community has had enough,” Mercer said.
Coun. Sue Knott acknowledged that people need their help, and that the shelter service is needed, but added they need to start pushing for more treatment services and detox.
Coun. Chris Kloot said it was difficult for council to strike that “delicate balance” with this one, and he struggled with the three-year proposal, but didn’t want the shelter doors to close by year’s end.
“There will never be a perfect location.”
Coun. Jeff Shields was torn.
“You can’t point to either one as being wrong,” he said about pros and cons, and felt the three years was too long. “I do think we owe it to the kids to provide a safe environment.”
Coun. Jason Lum called the entire exercise “civic engagement at its finest” and reminded him of all the passion for community that’s out there. He favoured keeping the shelter open and went along with the amended shorter duration motion.
“If we could harness some of that passion, we’d be doing all right. That being said, there’s a difference between passion and ignorance.”
But he was very uncomfortable with someone’s suggestion that those struggling with addiction could be “disappeared,” or that they were vermin or riffraff or rats.
“That’s dehumanizing language and it’s unacceptable,” Lum said.
Coun. Harv Westeringh agreed with the 18-month idea.
“And let’s keep their feet to the fire.”
Mayor Ken Popove said he heard the public’s concerns.
“Being either a perceived issue or a real one, we have to act on it. But I don’t want a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “There are models out there with shelter and supportive housing. I would like to go down that road.”
Cory Buettner, manager of The Portal came away from the long night feeling optimistic, saying it will take “a community” ultimately to solve the complex issues before them. After the meeting Buettner said they heard the many people who showed up at city hall “all passionate about their opinions and realities.”
“At the end of the day, council came up with a compromise of 18 months and the promise to work on better long-term solutions. I am optimistic for the future, I have an amazing staff that has been loving people through this time of uncertainty, being the foundation for them to stand on as they start to build up their lives and venture into the unfamiliar territory of trust and community.
“Now we will work with those who call The Portal home to find housing, recovery, community and self-confidence as we each learn from one another and grow in this journey together.”