Tuesday night was a contentious one at times as more than 30 speakers presented at the City of Lethbridge’s public hearing of Bylaw 6267.
The bylaw suggested rezoning the proposed site of an emergency sober shelter located at 110 13 St. S.
It proposed rezoning the property to allow for a drop-in centre, food bank, resource centre, shelter and soup kitchen.
The Mustard Seed had plans to merge with the Lethbridge Soup Kitchen at the new location had the rezoning bylaw been approved.
The bylaw change was defeated in a 7-2 vote on Tuesday night.
After the decision came down, Byron Bradley, the central Alberta and Lethbridge managing director of Mustard Seed, told Global News the organization will be stepping away from Lethbridge for some time.
“We’ve invested over $100,000 in the community since coming here, and so after last night’s decision, we’re going to take some time and step away from Lethbridge and reconsider where things are at, but it doesn’t mean we’re leaving Lethbridge forever,” he said on Wednesday.
Bradley also said the organization is very appreciative of all of the support it has received over recent months and thanked everyone who has vouched for it.
Bradley said he believes the site could have benefited Lethbridge’s most vulnerable.
“This population is already dealing with many health barriers were and still are incredibly vulnerable to this virus,” Bradley said during the hearing.
“These often overlooked and ignored members of our community do not have the luxury to keep away from COVID or the cold weather. We have looked at a number of sites across the city, met with a number of groups and landed on this current location,” he added.
Some of the speakers at the hearing did advocate their support for the zoning application.
“The Mustard Seed has been serving individuals experiencing homelessness and poverty for over 35 years in multiple locations and they bring experience and a proven track record in being a safe haven for those who need that so badly,” said Geoff Heth, the lead pastor at the Evangelical Free Church in Lethbridge.
“I know Lethbridge has had a hard run in with the ARCHES injection site and folks are apprehensive to have Mustard Seed come in with their sober housing program, but because of a lack of knowledge and the fear it may ruin their communities,” said Matthew Chalupnicek, an EMT who works with vulnerable people living on the street.
“I believe that fear shouldn’t lead us to inactivity.”
Coun. Rob Miyashiro and Mayor Chris Spearman were the only two to vote in favour of the bylaw.
Both have been advocates for harm reduction in the city in the past, and on Wednesday, Miyashiro explained the reasoning behind his vote.
“By the time it came down to Chris and I to vote, and people need to understand this, it was already lost… it was already 7-0,” he explained.
“I was just making a point. I mean, it was obvious my vote wasn’t going to matter, so that’s where I had to make a statement to say, ‘You know, I’m still in favour of these services.”
During the voting process, Miyashiro made a comment about an observation he made in which he feels several of the speakers had a “less than subtle racial overtone to their arguments, and so many arguments were given that have nothing to do with the zoning but people’s personal feeling about the (supervised consumption site) SCS and the people who need help.”
Many of the people who face homelessness and poverty in Lethbridge are Indigenous.
Miyashiro added that many people were consistently using “they” and “them” to describe those who utilize shelters, creating a strong sense of othering.
He also said there were some business owners who expressed interest in further community engagement to create a more all-encompassing master plan to help Lethbridge’s most vulnerable.
The majority of speakers were opposed to the zoning bylaw, citing fears the proposed location could draw in more illegal activity, threatening their livelihoods and properties.
“It’s difficult not to be emotional when it’s something that we built for years and to have the hopes we’ll be able to hand it down to our children to run,” said Lisa Haynes, co-owner of Lakno Furniture & Billiards on 2 Ave. S.
“I have zero problems with the Mustard Seed,” said Richard Daley, the owner of Earls on 13 St. S., to Bradley and council during the hearing.
“I have zero problems with the work you wish to do, that you may be able to do,” he added.
“I have every problem with the fact that your strategic plan is the site’s available,” Daley said.
Lawyer Rachel Hopf represented a number of business and property owners at the hearing and maintained her clients aren’t against the idea of the shelter, but rather the location.
She also raised concerns about the process itself.
“There is, in there, specifically comments about how the community adviser will plan and advise the application to host some sort of open house, and our concern was that that was not done,” Hopf told Global News on Wednesday.
Concerns about where people would potentially go after being denied entry into the sober shelter was another issue that was raised at the hearing.
“You’re going to kick them off their property. Where are they going to come? They’re going to come on my property,” said Ed Nestrovich, a commercial property owner.
“The city has painted my back (walls) where there’s graffiti. I go consistently pick up beer bottles. I pick up needles. I pick up clothing.”