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New West approves shelter use for former Army & Navy building

What's happening at city hall
The Purpose Society is proposing to operate a shelter in the lower level of the former Army & Navy department store.

New Westminster city council will hammer home the message that an emergency response shelter is a better option than a shelter that only operates on nights when the weather is considered extreme.

On Monday, council approved a temporary use permit that allows the Purpose Society to operate an emergency shelter on the lower floor of the former Army & Navy department store at 502 Columbia St. The temporary use permit would allow an extreme weather response program shelter or an emergency response shelter to operate in the building.

John Stark, the city’s supervisor of community planning, said BC Housing will ultimately make the decision about the type of shelter provided in the space.

“At this time, it is an extreme weather response program shelter, which will operate from Nov. 1 – or when all building considerations have been addressed – until March 31, during extreme weather events,” he told council Monday. “BC Housing has indicated they may be amenable to looking at it being a 24/7 shelter, which could be in place for the next 18 months or until permanent supportive housing is in place. So it is a funding decision by BC Housing.”

Stark said the type of shelter offered in the building would have staffing implications. He said some additional building upgrades may be needed with a 24/7 shelter, as opposed to an extreme weather shelter.

A temporary use permit is required for either option because an emergency shelter isn’t allowed out the current Columbia Street Historic Comprehensive Development District in zoning.

The extreme weather program provides 50 mats and operates during extreme cold weather events. An emergency response shelter would operate 24/7 and provide support services.

“From what I understand and from what I’ve heard, it will be an extreme weather response shelter for probably two to three weeks or so, and then there is a possibility it could evolve into a 24/7 shelter, but that funding decision still has to be made by BC Housing,” Stark said. “But the city’s preference is for a 24/7 shelter.”

Residents provide input

As part of the consultation process about the temporary use permit, the city received 43 written submissions, as well as comments on the city’s public engagement platform, Be Heard New West. Many residents urged the city to approve the permit.

“From my home, I can see the Columbia Street entrance to this building; it is a two minute walk from the front of my building. Our neighbourhood needs additional social supports for the under-housed population living here and this site would be ideal, both in its location for users of the temporary shelter, and for its ability to improve the neighbourhood,” said Sam Schechter in a letter to council. “Ideally, all of my neighbours would have a roof over their head while they sleep, but that is not currently the case, and I urge our council to take this step to help ensure a higher quality of life and better health outcomes for those who will benefit from this service.”

Many area residents, however, voiced concern that the city is allowing too many social services to operate in the downtown neighbourhood, which is affecting the area’s livability.

Jodie Mahovlic said the “grittiness” of the city was part of the appeal of moving to New West but
“the grittiness has gone too far.”

“The increase in garbage, graffiti, vandalism and petty crime in the past few years is extremely concern to me,” Mahovlic wrote in a letter to council. “I have seen human excrement on the street (once even on the steps of our garage exit, which is shared by the police department) syringes, and condoms on the sidewalk and people passed out after injecting drugs.”

Council unanimously approved the temporary use permit.

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said he’d like council to urge BC Housing to provide funding for a 24/7 shelter.

“It’s compassion,” he said. “Shaking people awake in the morning and then sending them outside because there is no funding to staff a shelter is heartbreaking.”

Puchmayr said he was once involved with an organization in Surrey that provided shelter to people from November to May.

“It has such a different impact. There’s a big difference between coming in for a few hours to sleep and then getting kicked back out, for lack of another word, and someone that is in there and is being mentored, has wrap-around services , is connected with family, is connected with health care, the outcomes are amazing,” he said. “And out of those people, 75% of the people that were in that program for that short period of time ended up in permanent housing. I think it’s incumbent on BC Housing to use that model as opposed to the get-in, get-out.”

Council approved Puchmayr’s motion to write to the province reaffirming the city’s support for a 24/7 shelter at this location

“From my perspective, I think we have already done that. It’s been embedded in council reports. I met directly with the (housing) minister and I was the one who delivered the message to the minister that we felt that there was a need for there to be just beyond the emergency weather shelter but that we were advocating for this,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote. “We can certainly pass this to reemphasize, but I think it has been conveyed not only at the staff but also at the political level.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus

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