B.C.’s housing minister is blasting the City of Penticton’s mayor and council for shooting down a proposal to continue operating a homeless shelter near the city’s downtown core, stating it could result in a homeless encampment in the Okanagan town.
On Tuesday, city council unanimously rejected BC Housing’s application for an extension of its temporary use permit to continue running the 42-bed shelter on Winnipeg Street until March 2022.
The existing permit expires at the end of March and the shelter will be forced to close as of April 1.
Council reluctantly approved the temporary shelter in October as winter approached and existing shelters were operating at reduced capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We made it very clear at that time that it was just temporary,” councillor Katie Robinson said at Tuesday’s council meeting.
She also lamented a lack of communication from BC Housing about its projects in the city.
“I think we can all agree this is one of the most inappropriate sites that we’ve ever seen — right beside seniors’ housing, right in the middle of downtown, the list just goes on and on,” said Robinson.
In an interview with Global News, David Eby, B.C.’s minister of housing, expressed shock and disappointment at council’s decision.
“It’s… mildly astonishing that in a middle of a pandemic, knowing that the 42 people who live in this emergency shelter have nowhere else to go, that the city council would vote to kick them to the curb because that is what they did.”
Eby pointed to a BC Court of Appeal decision that determined those experiencing homelessness can pitch their tents in parks if there is nowhere else for them to go.
“To see a city council willingly flirting with establishing an encampment in their own city is astonishing to me.”
Eby said he will do everything in his power to prevent another homeless encampment in B.C.
He said the province does have the power to ignore local zoning restrictions to operate a provincial project, but it may not be possible in this case.
“The problem with this particular project is we don’t own the site and BC Housing is only indirectly operating it through a third-party, so it’s not a slam dunk that we can use our authorities in this way,” Eby said.
Eby said BC Housing has 1,000 tents and 1,000 sleeping bags stockpiled for emergencies and the supplies could be moved to Penticton.
“My message to the residents of Penticton and to the residents of this particular emergency shelter is that I will do everything in my power to prevent there from being an encampment in Penticton when the shelter closes at the end of March,” he said.
Eby said if the province is not able to use its provincial powers to keep the shelter operating, it will ensure a homeless encampment is “well run.”
“I am sorry to actually have to say those words in British Columbia in the year 2021, during a global pandemic, but that is exactly what I am saying, we will run as good of an encampment as we can in Penticton, because the city council has abandoned these 42 people and I’m also speechless.”
Penticton city council has been locked in a dispute with the province over demands for an independent, third-party audit of existing housing facilities before BC Housing moves forward with plans to build a fourth supportive housing facility on Skaha Lake Road.
Eby said he’s “spent hours” on Zoom video conference calls on two separate occasions with Penticton city council discussing the issue.
The most recent meeting occurred on Feb. 3 and Eby said he committed to coming back to council with a proposal for auditing the city’s three existing supportive housing sites.
“We have developed a proposal for a third-party review of a number of different metrics related to these housing sites, and in the interim, they have now voted down the emergency shelter that houses the people that were supposed to go into the supportive housing that we are trying to get built.”
Eby said city council could have contacted B.C.’s housing ministry if there was urgency in receiving the audit proposal, before taking what appears to be a retaliatory measure.
“It is baffling to me, I have bent over backwards to work with the city, I will not accommodate their creation of an encampment, but if we were forced into that, we will manage it as best we can.”
Concerned residents and business owners near the Winnipeg Street shelter had launched a petition in protest of its location.
It cites police activity, bad behaviour, littering, noise and loitering as some of the issues that arose since the shelter was opened.