A new first stage recovery house for women was given plenty of good wishes from city council on Tuesday, but not the temporary use permit they were looking for.
The TUP would have allowed Spiritual Quest Wellness Society to grow from six beds to 10, one for full time supervisory staff and the rest for women going through the first three months of sobriety. But a sizable contingent of the society’s neighbours showed up to speak against the expansion at a public hearing, and council agreed it was too much, too soon.
Spiritual Quest Wellness Society has been operating in Chilliwack for less than three months, at 9190 Nowell Street. Their application for an expansion was deferred by council until next July.
“While I truly support what the ladies are doing,” said Councillor Ken Popove, calling it a “vital piece of the puzzle,” he also said council needs to see more of a track record before approving an expansion of bed space. Popove urged the executive director and staff to follow through with plans to get engaged in the community through sitting in on committee meetings and volunteering with like-minded services.
The women living at Spiritual Quest Wellness Society are there by choice, to be in recovery. They must be 19 or older, and are expected to participate in wellness recovery. The home is on R2 land, which is a residential designation that allows for Supportive Housing for up to six people. There are four similar SHR locations in Chilliwack, including Ruth and Naomi’s, which is only 223 metres from Spiritual Quest.
Many neighbours speaking up against the expansion said there are just too many problems in their area to trust the Spiritual Quest in growing responsibly.
“They are not doing their clients a service by putting them … in an area already infested with drug dealers and prostitutes,” said neighbour Bob Lester, adding they’d be better served to be located “any location other than the downtown core.”
Barb Dyck, who is the assistant manager of Spirit Quest and the on-duty volunteer throughout the day, said the downtown location is perfect for their needs.
“We cannot take these women out of society and wrap them in cotton balls and protect them from every drug dealer that comes their way,” she said. “I’m very aware of this area and very aware of its unfortunate reputation, but that was here prior to our coming to the area… I’m not naive.”
And neither are their clients. These women are coming to the house “to get away from their own war zones,” Dyck added. They arrive “very afraid, very unsure,” and have solid plans in place to return home when they’ve finished recovery.
Both Mayor Sharon Gaetz and Councillor Jason Lum expressed concern that women who come to Spiritual Quest from other towns, who do not complete recovery would be tossed out on local streets.
“We have experience with other homes where they do that,” Lum said. “So, it’s not that far fetched.”
But staff said the women coming to them have solid exit plans, for their three month end and if they need to be removed for contravening the strict rules in place.
Owner Justine Gillies was also on hand for the hearing, which was part of a marathon council meeting that ran well past midnight Tuesday night.
She addressed the fear expressed by neighbours as “false evidence appearing real.”
“I know that recovery houses do work,” she said. “I know they save lives. I’m living proof of that. This is my dream, this is my vision to help women, women are dying… the drugs out there are so bad and it’s everywhere. Nobody can recover alone.”
She said Chilliwack has strong Alcoholics Anonymous community, including the Alano Club downtown, which have welcomed their clients with open arms.
“The passion is there,” she said. “And we are willing to address issues, we’re not trying to bring in a bunch of criminals.”
The closest neighbour to the home said drifting cigarette smoke and nightly outdoor conversations are having an impact on her family. She worried that adding more women to the house would increase both the noise and the smoke. The only private area at the society faces the main wall of the neighbour’s house.
Gillies said they have heard that concern and are working on an outdoor, partially enclosed smoking area that would include a smoke fan to reduce the issue. They are also considering limiting the number of women allowed in that area at one time to three.
All the neighbours alluded to feeling blindsided by the property becoming recovery house.
But many councillors noted that the service is needed, and this house seems to be doing everything right so far, including Sam Waddington.
He said in some situations a “neighbourhood would be asking for a complete shutdown. I didn’t hear a single word of that today. I think this is the right module, I think you have the best intentions, and the right formula, and I would love to see this before us again in the short future.
Gaetz was less sure, while still offering support.
“I’m not sure if downtown Chilliwack is a place to have another recovery home,” she said, adding she “kind of lost interest” when the group noted that the women so far have come from other communities.
“This area is very fragile,” she said. “We’re just at a tipping point here with downtown. We know that you’re struggling and we know the drug dealing happening in front of your place.
“I’m cheering you on,” she added. “I want you to be successful with those six beds, but you’re going to have to do some really fancy footwork for those 10 beds. Walk cautiously, start small, integrate into the community.”
Gaetz was the sole voice against deferring the TUP for a year, noting the society could be ready to come back to council sooner, or never at all.