The location of a downtown shelter became an irritant for some Chilliwack residents this week given its close proximity to two schools.
Opposition to the The Portal on Yale Road East exploded on Chilliwack’s social media pages and crystallized into an online petition with almost 2,500 names.
A public meeting is set for Oct. 3 at the RAN Family Centre to hear feedback and share details about the BC Housing proposal to extend the shelter’s temporary use permit for (TUP) three years.
A Change.org petition titled ‘Let’s take back DT Chilliwack to make students safe again’ is asking city officials not to approve the permit.
“Although we understand there is a need for homeless shelters and warming shelters in Chilliwack this is not the right location for it,” reads the preamble of the petition.
“This shelter impacts the entire neighborhood and children in the neighbouring schools.”
The opposition is mobilizing despite the little known success they’ve seen at the shelter with a total of 60 people entering housing, and 29 entering addictions treatment and recovery since it opened.
The two main concerns cited about the location and students’ safety by were tackled by Bill Raddatz, executive director of Ruth & Naomi’s Mission.
“In terms of the location, right from the beginning it was always from a point of need, not a point of want,” Raddatz said, adding the area was much worse before they opened the shelter.
The fact is there were no other spaces available, since a minimum of 5,000 square feet is needed for this use. And there would likely be some community concern no matter where it was situated in the downtown, Raddatz acknowledged.
In terms of the safety of students passing by the shelter, in conversations with the superintendent of the Chilliwack School District, Raddatz confirmed there were no complaints registered since the shelter opened, and they have security and video surveillance onsite.
The petitioners say the location is too close to schools, at about 170 metres away from Chilliwack Middle School (Grades 6-8), 400 metres from Chilliwack Senior Secondary (Grades 9-12) with more 1500 students, and 800 metres from Central Elementary.
“Many students pass the Portal on their way to school which has an open display of illegal drug use, a discharge of dangerous needles, numerous people overdosing and many levels of other crime which accompanies this shelter,” according to the petition preamble. “Every child in Chilliwack should feel safe and secure when they are travelling to and from school. Local students should not have to be subjected to these levels of criminality because of the location of their school is near a shelter, that was never supposed to be there. Thus, another location is necessary to maintain student safety.”
But some of those now complaining may not remember the terrible conditions on the street before the shelter opened in the former Lions Club Flea Market, say RAN officials.
The old Lions space was cleared to make way for a temporary shelter in December of 2018, during a particularly bitter cold winter when dozens of people were suffering on the streets in sub-zero temperatures. It was significantly worse in the area then without the supervision and security onsite.
Portal manager Cory Buettner felt compelled to clarify some of the information by pointing out that they have 24-hour staffing and 24-hour video surveillance, with a safety protocol in place for school children.
“We have security outside the hour before school and after school lets out and their only role is to make sure kids and families have a safe route to school,” Buettner wrote.
He also invited everyone to come out and chat about these issues at the Oct. 3 meeting.
“Many of those staying with us now are trying to get into housing, and are working with people from various service providers,” he said. “Every one of them have their own story and they are all human beings, their identity is not found in their addiction but in their humanity.”
Plus, another 46 supportive housing units from BC Housing should be complete this fall on Trethewey Avenue in addition to the 46 already open on Yale Road, and the Portal is going to see substantial building improvements, if the TUP is approved.
“Our plans are to add more bathrooms, showers, new bunk beds, a new kitchen and more laundry facilities,” Buettner wrote.
Shelters are actually considered the best way to get people housed and stabilized, since they get to meet various service providers at the one location.
“We have folks from Fraser health, Mental health, Sto:lo Nation, Income Assistance, PCRS, The Housing Hub, Salvation Army, Ann Davis and more who are meeting with clients and helping them to take those next steps.”
Trust in staff is key when it comes to people asking for help.
“The biggest and most important thing that people can do is build relationships with our guests and get to know them,” Buettner added. “When you can sit down with someone and treat them as an equal it helps build their self-esteem.”
Fatimi Zaidi has been working in the area of homelessness for many years, and felt compelled to get in on the community discussion sparked recently about the shelter’s impact.
“I have written an honours thesis on homelessness and public policy, worked as a disability support advocate, crisis interventionist, did a TEDx Talk on homelessness and at one point even worked in security and dealt with homelessness from that perspective,” she posted after being affected by so many social media comments on this topic.
“When we see some individuals who leave needles behind or cause safety issues for themselves and their communities, they are actually a very small minority,” Zaidi wrote. “We think all individuals experiencing homelessness are problematic but it’s because all we see are those individuals who are causing problems.
Why don’t we see the other 90 per cent of homelessness individuals? Because they are minding their own business, sorting out their lives and not getting into problems.
“And if we move and close down shelters and the very limited services that we do have, we will be doing a disservice to those who are getting the help they need and are not causing problems.”
Zaidi said if there’s a shelter in an unwanted location and peole want it moved, the best thing they can do is volunteer there weekly for at least a few months.
“See if your mind changes after that. In the mean time, the second best solution is to have patience. There’s a lot of good work being done in the community and things will change for the better soon.
“There are proactive members of the community that are working towards a long-term solution, while trying to keep up with short-term problems. But we are ultimately trying to move away from bandaid solutions. Complaining about shelters, protesting against proven solutions like safe injection sites, pushing to get people experiencing homelessness moved out of the community or even the block will only slow down the progress.”
Anyone who cannot attend the Oct. 3 meeting at RAN can contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments.