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Compassion drives council’s support of rezoning for proposed Salmon Arm shelter

Residents share concerns with chosen property, majority acknowledge need at hearing
BC Housing regional development director Tyler Baker speaks to city council during a public hearing on rezoning for a proposed shelter at 341 and 361 Fraser Ave. NE on Monday, July 24. (Lachlan Labere/Salmon Arm Observer)

A rezoning application for a proposed BC Housing shelter received third reading by Salmon Arm council.

The city’s mayor and councillors not only gave unanimous support for the rezoning of city owned properties at 341 and 361 Fraser Ave. NE, from M2 Light Industrial to a CD-20 Comprehensive Development Zone, in order to accommodate a shelter, but each also spoke at length, some intimately, about homelessness and the need not just for a shelter, but for compassion.

Before council’s vote, the evening portion of its Monday, July 24, meeting began with a public hearing on the zoning. All the seats in council chambers were full, as was a nearby breakout room, with an overflow of attendees seated in the lobby.

First to speak was city planning and community services director Gary Buxton, who summarized details of the application, to accommodate construction of a 25-bed shelter where meals and support services will be made available.

The shelter will be operated by the Canadian Mental Health Association Shuswap-Revelstoke.

Buxton also noted construction of the shelter allows the city to better address encampments, and that it’s the city’s intent not to allow the one located next to the shelter properties to continue.

Next to speak were BC Housing regional operations manager Cheryl Roepcke and regional development director Tyler Baker, who went into further detail about the shelter, including plans for security. Roepcke explained the shelter is still in the early stages of design.

Over the next three hours, roughly, people attending the meeting in person or online shared concerns, asked questions, asked council to turn down the zoning or give its support. The majority recognized the need for a shelter.

Read more: BC Housing looks to construct new shelter in Salmon Arm by winter 2023

Numerous speakers shared their experiences with the current tent encampment and related grievances, concerns around theft, drug use and for their personal safety. The impact the shelter could have on neighbouring property values was also raised.

Some suggested a shorter lease than the 10-years requested by BC Housing. Others argued while a shelter is needed, it should not go in or next to a residential area. A smaller number of people spoke in favour of the zoning and championed the people who may use it as a means to a more permanent housing solution.

“I think as residents of this city, we have a duty to show compassion to other people. You can’t just NIMBY them out to somewhere out in the boondocks and hope that the problem is going to go away,” said Alan Bahen, who works with his partner Anne Locking at the Salvation Army’s Lighthouse Shelter Café.

The hearing ended sometime after 10 p.m, at which point the mayor and council responded to concerns and shared their considerations.

Read more: New temporary shelter in Salmon Arm to address residents’ concerns

Coun. David Gonella expressed empathy for those who have had negative experiences with the encampment, and said he tried to base his decision on compassion, “for you in the community, but also compassion for the people we’re trying to help.” Gonella stressed when the shelter opens, the encampment would be removed.

“We will do everything we can to keep you safe,” said Gonella. “I do not like the idea that you do not feel safe. I take that personally and I will do everything I can personally to help.”

Coun. Debbie Cannon also acknowledged concerns around safety – for those present and those who need a place to stay when the temperature drops.

“I know in November, when we had the cold snap, everyone was…concerned about the tent encampment and how those people were going to survive with the temperatures that were dropping…,” said Cannon. “I do feel at that point the province, BC Housing, dropped the ball… so now we have the opportunity to work with BC Housing, they’ve come to the table, and this is the property that we’re looking at.”

Coun. Louise Wallace Richmond said by voting against the rezoning, nothing would change and the encampment would stay for the foreseeable future. She called encampments are dangerous, volatile and unstable, and said “when people live in a constant state of survival, and we have to respond in a constant state of crisis management…there is chaos. And we need to take steps to quiet the chaos and we need to be more strategic and adopt a process of care and concern and progress so that people can get back on their feet and back to their lives.”

Read more: Neighbours of proposed Salmon Arm shelter properties raise concerns, questions

Coun. Sylvia Lindgren said a 10-year lease provides predictability and a permanent or semi-permanent home for people while they work on the things they need to work on to move into a better place in their life. She suggested placing the encampment in its current location may have negatively influenced some people’s view on “living next to a particular group of people,” but added the city didn’t know when it moved the tents where a future shelter would be.

Lindgren said the only reason she wouldn’t support the rezoning is out of fear those needing the shelter would feel unwanted and unwelcomed by their neighbours. “For me that’s a big deterrent to them being able to feel self-worth and build the confidence and the skills they need to get themselves out of the situation that got them in to being homeless…,” said Lindgren, encouraging connections be made between the future shelter’s neighbours and users.

Following equally considered comments from Couns. Tim Lavery and Kevin Flynn, Mayor Alan Harrison spoke, first thanking everyone for their feedback, noting “we are not adversaries even if we have different opinions.” He then provided some background on shelters in the city before speaking to the current need and proposed location.

“A shelter is housing, housing belongs alongside a residential area,” said Harrison. “And this proposal, with a 10-year lease, allows the building to be more permanent, it allows money to be spent…on the building, on appropriate buffering, on fencing and on greenspace.

“With CMHA as the operator, we have professional experienced staff with a track record, with the ability to help and link those in need with appropriate services while providing full-time security.”

Harrison said he’s heard the frustration around the encampment, and with the shelter there will be rules and expectations that will be enforced.

“I believe we need a shelter, I believe it needs to be on public land, I believe it needs to have a long enough lease to invest money to make it fit alongside a residential area,” said Harrison. “I believe it needs to have its own services, security, counselling help, a kitchen, laundry and washroom services as well as storage facilities for its residents…I also believe it needs to be situated close to other government services. This location fits those criteria.”
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