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Castlegar homeless shelter’s permit to be extended

Castlegar’s Way Out homeless shelter is poised to have its permit renewed for another three years, despite reservations expressed by several city councillors.

Council’s unanimous vote to allow the 13-bed shelter at 1660 Columbia Ave. to continue operating followed two hours of presentations and discussions last week. It also came a week after some businesses aired their grievances about the shelter at a special meeting.

The renewal, to be confirmed next month, is for three years but will be reviewed annually. It is also subject to several conditions, including fire sprinkler and alarm upgrades and dealing with the problems identified by the business community. The current permit expires Sept. 1.

In presenting the recommendation to council, city manager Chris Barlow called it a “very complex file” with “no easy answers or solutions.” He said they studied the need for the shelter, its location, and its operation.

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He said the need is unquestioned, as the shelter has been full since it opened in November 2020 and provides housing options for people who would otherwise have nowhere to go, along with outreach services. The shelter opened at a downtown location but moved to the former Flamingo Motel in 2021.

Although technically only intended to run from November to March, additional COVID-related funding has allowed it to operation year-round.

While staff feel there is no perfect location, they agree there is a “clear correlation” between the shelter and things neighbours have complained of, such as vandalism and messes left on their properties.

As for operation, he said it is difficult to separate issues directly attributable to the shelter and within their control from those that aren’t.

The shelter and its outreach services are both operated by the Castlegar and District Community Services Society with funding and other support from BC Housing.

Under the resolution passed by council, the society will have to come back to the city by Nov. 1 with a plan to address the operational issues and the matter will be revisited in March, where the permit could be maintained, rewritten, or revoked.

(Although the permit will actually be reviewed annually, staff recommended issuing it for three years because a temporary use permit can only be extended once before a formal rezoning process is required to make a use permanent.)

In a presentation from BC Housing, council heard Castlegar has 110 active homelessness case files, and no other permanent shelter or housing solutions. The Way Out Shelter has 10 beds for men and three for women. It provides warm meals, harm reduction supplies, and hygiene supports.

Last year it temporarily housed over 100 people and in the last two years it has helped at least 15 people secure long-term housing. Community services also provides motel or rent subsidies, support for moving and storage, gift and gas cards, plus tents and sleeping bags.

Council heard if the temporary permit is not extended, there is no back-up plan for those staying in the shelter, which is already turning people away.

Councillor Maria McFaddin said she struggled with the decision and called it the “second-most complicated thing” that has come before council this term, after the rezoning of Brandson Park for a housing development.

She said she has “deep compassion” for people who are homeless and advocates for them, but wrestled with the impacts on nearby residents and businesses.

“How do we make decisions that meet both parties’ needs?” she asked. “I don’t know the solution, but I do know it’s not working well for all parties involved … My biggest concern is for seniors who feel unsafe in their homes.”

McFaddin said she sensed a “disconnect” in communication between the shelter’s operators and the neighbouring businesses and rest of the community. While she supported renewing the permit, she said she would need to see “some movement forward or I will not support it next time.”

Councillor Cherryl MacLeod asked if BC Housing would fund a public washroom that could be open 24 hours a day. Nanette Drobot, the regional director of operations for the interior, replied they have not done so before but would not rule it out.

Councillor Brian Bogle asked what causes someone to be banned from the shelter. Community services executive director Kristein Johnson replied it is almost always due to a risk for the safety of staff and others living there. She said a dozen people have been banned since the shelter opened.

Johnson also said they have started an incident book and, while they have to be careful of privacy concerns, they hope to share some of the information so the public can better understand the situations they face and why police might attend at the shelter.

Although councillor Dan Rye supported the permit renewal, he said he feels the shelter should be in a different location.

“We need a shelter, but some of the things that have happened there, and the lack of education and communication has put the wrong feeling in a lot of people’s minds,” he said.

Councillor Bergen Price said he agreed the location is not ideal, but didn’t think a perfect one exists.

Drobot said shelters in other parts of BC are often downtown, but in Kamloops the city provided land that was well away from its core and has worked well. In other cases, they have used empty warehouses in industrial areas, she said.

Mayor Kirk Duff felt the debate over the location was moot, and expected the same issues would surface no matter where the shelter was. But he said he’d like more security at night and outreach services provided starting earlier in the day.

“The problem would be there even without a shelter,” he said. “We can only improve on the delivery of service.”

He agreed communication needs to be improved between the shelter and its neighbors and issues need to be addressed more quickly.

“We are on the right path, but not there yet,” he said.

Feedback from neighbours included in the staff report was mostly negative, with respondents citing concerns such as early morning and late night yelling, illicit drug use, and people camping on private property and lighting fires.

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