Public hearing to determine fate of East Vancouver detox/social housing complex

Vancouver Courier

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Thirty people have so far signed up to speak at a public hearing next week where council will decide whether to a approve a rezoning application for a detox and social housing complex on a large parcel of land at Clark and East First Avenue.

A public hearing is slated for Feb. 20 on a proposed detox and social housing rental complex at Clark and East First

The public hearing, set for Feb. 20, will deal with properties at 1636 Clark Dr. and 1321 to 1395 East First Ave.

The proposed building would be three to four storeys for most of the block between Clark and McLean drives, but rise to 10 storeys facing Clark and six storeys facing McLean.

It would include:

  • 90 social housing units;
  • social enterprise space for Indigenous healing, wellness and community economic development;
  • a withdrawal centre with 51 in-patient withdrawal management treatment beds, out-patient and home-based withdrawal management services;
  • a sobering centre for people while they withdraw from substances;
  • 20 short-term transitional beds; and
  • an academic teaching, research and learning centre.

B.C. Housing would rent about 50 per cent of the housing units to households below the B.C. Housing Income Limits (HIL) levels, with the remaining rented at CMHC private rental market rates for Vancouver.

The withdrawal management centre portion of the project would be a direct replacement for the existing Vancouver Detox Centre, which includes a sobering centre. It’s been operating nearby at 377 East Second Ave. for more than 30 years. VCH has wanted to replace it for a many years because the health authority says it’s undersized for the growing demand in Vancouver for withdrawal and substance-use programs.

While withdrawal management has evolved to include residential, outpatient and home-based services, VCH says it hasn’t been able to offer all the services it needs to in a central location due to space constraints at the Vancouver Detox Centre.

But it will be possible at the proposed development, which would be staffed 24/7 by physicians, nurses, counsellors, social workers and health care workers.

Bonnie Wilson, director for inner city services for Vancouver Coastal Health, told the Courier it’s important to bring together withdrawal management services that are currently scattered around the city.

When clients need to transition from one service to another, she said they have to physically change locations, which creates a risk of losing them on “their recovery journey.”

“By having our services co-located, one, it allows us to bring all of the specialization expertise together and, two it actually provides a more seamless service to our clients as their needs are changing. It really is about providing best practice for individuals and for bringing the expertise together…”

Wilson said the housing component of the project is also important in light of the affordability crisis.

“Any opportunity that we have to put a development together and have our services, we are also looking at trying to combine, as much as we can, opportunities around housing.”

Staff from Vancouver Coastal Health have attended public information sessions about the rezoning application and they’ve talked with groups and individuals about their concerns.

Support for the project exists from groups including Abundant Housing Vancouver, which has lobbied in favour of the project due to the housing and opiate crises (Read about AHV’s position HERE), but some community opposition persists.

The Grandview-Woodland Area Council has raised concerns, as has a group called Community 1st, which formed in March of 2018 after neighbouring residents learned about the complex.

Thomas Ferguson, one of its members, said they favour a “community-scaled” development. The group maintains the proposal doesn’t reflect the spirit of the Grandview-Woodland community plan and detox services should be spread throughout the city.

“We love the community. We love how diverse it is. It’s a mix of housing and we embrace that. There’s social housing, there’s co-ops, there’s detached housing, there’s condos and rental apartments. We are a thriving neighbourhood because of our diversity,” Ferguson said.

“It just seems shocking to us that the majority of the detox [in Vancouver] would be centralized, all of the drunk tank or sobering beds would be put in this residential area, and more than 20 people will lose their homes — some of them have lived there for decades.”

There are currently 18 existing rental housing units on the properties in question, according to the City of Vancouver rezoning report. Those residents would be provided a tenant relocation plan and would also be offered right of first refusal for the social housing units in the development if they meet eligibility requirements.

But Ferguson said some of those residents have lived in their homes for upwards of 30 years and, while they would be considered for the social housing, it will take at least two years for the complex to be built.

“They’re out of their homes… they’re being demovicted by the city,” he said.

Ferguson plans to speak at the public hearing but he’s not optimistic. He said it’s been difficult for residents to deal with the issue because most have full time jobs and families, while the city, Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing have full-time staff, communication people and a public relations firm to promote the project.

“I’m completely discouraged. The whole consultation process has been a sham. This is a holdover from Vision [Vancouver], where Vision rammed things through. Vision was wiped out for a reason because they did not work with communities. They imposed from the top down,” he said.

Ferguson said it’s also been difficult to get some questions answered such as how many people will work at the detox centre because VCH doesn’t know.

“They told us how many people worked at the East Second location, but this is going to be five times bigger. From our research, it’s the largest detox in Canada. Vancouver Coastal Health wants detox to be community based, which we completely support, but we argue it should be community scaled. It should be appropriately sized to the community. We would be opposed to this development if it contained a supermarket that was this size. It’s not about the detox, it’s about the size,” he said.

“This so-called consultation is a farce. They say this is what we’re doing. It’s like going to a condo sales office. It’s all pretty pictures and they’re just selling it. They don’t want to hear from us and the answers they provided are spin.”

Wilson, meanwhile, said she’s been involved in several projects that combine health services and housing over the years and has heard similar concerns about those facilities.

“We’ve tried as best as we can to answer the questions that they have and to put some of their fears at rest. We encouraged people to go and look at other sites that we have, to go look at our current withdrawal management facility and see what’s happening around that building and around that community just to put their fears at ease,” she said. “But I think, in general, when individuals are quite unfamiliar with something and it’s something that is new to them or new to their community, many of those fears do creep up.”

Although critics have complained that putting so many detox services together housing is akin to an expensive experiment, Wilson doesn’t believe that’s the case.

She pointed to the Vancouver Detox Centre, which she said is “surrounded by apartment buildings,” is close to an elementary school and next door to the Emily Carr campus but hasn’t been a source of problems.

Wilson is convinced, if the proposed development is approved, it will function well.

“I don’t have concerns about it moving forward because we’ve actually also received quite a bit of support for the project. There are some neighbours who are actually quite supportive of this going forward and, in addition to that, in general, in the city of Vancouver, there’s an incredible amount of support for us trying our best to look at our services for people with addictions and improving those services — enhancing those services in any way we can, making our system easier to navigate,” she said. “…The benefits really do stand for themselves.”

The public hearing gets underway at 6 p.m., Feb. 20.

noconnor@vacnourier.com