The first of two town hall meetings hosted by Chilliwack city council on Wednesday night saw just under 50 people showing up to broach timely topics.
Speakers quizzed council on street parking, public safety, crime, and drug abuse. They asked what City of Chilliwack was doing about the homeless people who gather under the overpass, and a crime rate that may be on the rise.
They wanted to know about city plans for asbestos abatement, the town dike and road markings for new developments.
Regular city budget commentator Bryden Nelmes asked council if it planned to consider “asbestos abatement,” as a condition of future demolition permits, in the wake of a recent building demolished at Yale and Menzies found to contain asbestos after it came down.
“Yes we absolutely are,” replied Mayor Sharon Gaetz, adding that staff would be looking into asbestos abatement, to see if it could be incorporated into the demolition permitting process.
Nelmes also asked for an update on the plans for a new pump station at the Hope Slough, and was told by staff that the preliminary design process was about to begin.
Coun. Jason Lum noted it was a “great time” to talk about flood control and to remind everyone to tell their MPs how important flood protection is, especially since estimates point to losses of six to eight billion in the event of a major flood.
“We don’t want to see a situation like the one in Calgary,” said Lum. “We want to make sure we continue to offer a proactive response.”
Speaker Wayne Froese asked if council was looking at a comprehensive plan to make Chilliwack more “walkable.” He added he meant one that would function to “get people out of their cars,” and suggested Chilliwack had room for improvement in that regard.
Coun. Chuck Stam said there was such a plan, citing a 10-year plan focused on improving bicycle paths and pedestrian walkways, that is both “progressive and aggressive.”
Stam said they’re working on plans to extend the Sardis Rail Trail for cyclists and pedestrians to cross over the highway as far north as Airport.
“There’s more to come,” he underlined.
Speaker Erin Lacey took the mic to say she was “a mom who loves Chilliwack,” who spends a lot of time at the Chilliwack library, and the downtown, and is growing concerned by homelessness and IV drug users.
“There have been some random crazy things happening and incidents where I have had to call police, for violence and drugs. It’s very upsetting.”
She raised the issue of the homeless people who congregate under the overpass near the McDonalds, and asked why a portapotty could not be brought to the site, since there was evidence of feces left behind.
“Homelessness is not unique to Chilliwack,” underlined Chris Crosman, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer.
Regarding the folks who gather under the overpass, he said: “We’ve been reaching out to them constantly to get them the help they need.”
But they’ve so far refused any help, since getting housing requires sobriety. The problem is with people buying them food and bringing them couches, it’s enabling the lifestyle, he said.
“We have to be very careful not to create a homeless camp,” Crosman said.
Mayor Gaetz said city council does not make decisions, like the one to put the fence under the overpass, alone. There’s a coalition of 36 agencies involved in the Healthier Communities effort.
“Homelessness in Chilliwack went down from 111 to 73 in the last homeless count,” she said, praising the work of local groups and facilities, from Ruth and Naomi’s Mission, Cyrus Centre, as well as the contact centre, and School Street facility for homeless youth and those with mental health and addictions.
“Our goal is to end homelessness in the City of Chilliwack,” Gaetz said.
RCMP Insp. Davy Lee chimed in about prolific offenders and the crucial contributions of crime analysts who show where the “hotspots” are.
A lot of their focus is on keeping track of prolific offenders.
“They really are career criminals,” Insp. Lee said.
Part of the issue under the overpass is that it’s a roadway, and the street people are moved along.
“There is no easy solution,” said the mayor. “We move them on and they come back. The next part we’re working on is toward Housing First initiatives.”
Local business owner Cam Hull, also a former mayoralty candidate, offered praise for what Chilliwack has done, and continue to do, to solve the homelessness problem.
But he said he found statistics to show that Chilliwack’s crime rate has been creeping slowly upward.
“What is the city going to do to stem this steady increase?” he asked.
Hull said Chilliwack was the only city in the Fraser Valley and Metro Vancouver to see a crime rate increase in the last five years.
Coun. Sue Attrill replied that Chilliwack was hiring two more RCMP officers and will continue to target prolific offenders since they account for 80 per cent of the crime.
“If we could get them under control, the RCMP would have hours in which to attend to other matters. We’re looking to increase the RCMP numbers, but we also have to address the issue which is sucking all the time out of the RCMP.”
Speaker Rene Crawshaw asked about the timeline for work on the Town Dike, asking about expropriation plans, setbacks and First Nations involvement.
He was told by director of transportation Rod Sanderson that city staff “are working on each and every one of those problems.”
Another speaker rose from her chair to describe a situation in her neighbourhood where there’s been “constant violence” at a nearby property that threatens the safety of her and her family.
“I don’t feel safe. I’ve lived in the community for 25 years, and raised my kids here. I’m angry now.”
Coun. Lum said he was definitely empathetic as he heard her story, as chair of the public safety committee, and suggested one solution might be a public registry for “deadbeat landlords” for those who are “profiting off” of residents’ heartache.
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no room for that.”
The next one is Sept. 17 at Sardis library at 7 p.m.