The proponents of a recovery supportive housing facility proposed in Penticton, B.C., said the new model is a “game-changer” in the province’s response to addressing homelessness.
Late last year, BC Housing announced it had purchased an empty lot at 3240 Skaha Lake Road with the intention of building the city’s fourth low-barrier supportive housing facility.
Following sharp criticism from city hall and some neighbours, the proposal has now changed to a recovery model. Consumption of alcohol and drugs would not be allowed on-site.
“As we know in the community, there is a wide range of housing needs, everything from the shelter, which has really taken up a lot of the discussion in the community, the low-barrier housing, so housing that really is helping people come straight off the streets,” said Bob Hughes, the CEO of Ask Wellness Society, which will operate the 50-plus unit facility.
“That has already been done, and we see some programming that has been under fire from the City of Penticton. This is a different project that is being proposed.”
The four-storey building would boast 54 studio homes, three accessible suites, and two homes with the potential to accommodate couples.
The facility will also offer Indigenous cultural programming and on-site cultural workers to support Indigenous residents in their recovery.
“One of the things that we are going to be providing is the cultural supports, as well as the substance abuse and mental health counselling, and helping with the employment and vocational process,” said Matthew Baran, executive director of the Ooknakane Friendship Centre.
The proponents call the recovery model a ground-breaking initiative in the province’s efforts to reduce homelessness.
“I think it’s a game-changer, quite frankly,” Baran said.
“When we started looking at the ballooning effect that we are seeing right now with homelessness. Being able to start moving that population into wellness should be our priority.”
Penticton city council previously expressed concern about BC Housing building a fourth low-barrier housing facility for the homeless in the relatively small community of 36,000 people.
In a letter to BC Housing Minister David Eby, dated March 11, city council outlined a series of concerns, including the location on a major thoroughfare, the potential strain on emergency services, and the lack of funding for fire, police and bylaw services responding to such facilities.
Council suggested the project should be transitioned to seniors or low-income housing.
City council is also awaiting the outcome of an external review of the three existing supportive housing developments in Penticton: Fairhaven, Compass Court and Burdock House.
BC Housing has committed to procuring an external firm to collect and analyze data, but the exact scope of work or a timeline has not been released publicly.
City council made it clear to the province it expects the evaluation to be completed prior to any work taking place on an additional supportive housing development, but BC Housing has already submitted its development permit application without such a review being complete.
“The Skaha Lake Rd project is important to help ensure those experiencing or at the risk of homelessness have a safe and affordable place to call home,” Laura Mathews, BC Housing’s spokesperson, said in an email.
“There is an immediate need for more housing in Penticton. The site is appropriately zoned for its intended use.”
Penticton’s safety and security committee has also drafted a set of location guidelines for future shelter and supportive housing projects, which includes a map of “no-go” zones.
Skaha Lake Road is included in a “no-go” zone, however, the committee said abstinence-based facilities could be exempt from the guidelines.
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“These guidelines are still subject to Council endorsement so may go through further refinement,” Blake Laven, the city’s development services manager, told Global News.
“With regard to the project on Skaha Lake Road, we are still trying to understand the operational model and how the guidelines would be applied.”
John Vassilaki, Penticton mayor, said the new recovery model pitched for Skaha is a “good start” and he is pleased to see the change. However, he declined further comment until the proposal is brought before council for approval in the coming months.
The City of Penticton remains embroiled in a dispute with the provincial government over a downtown emergency shelter.
BC Housing has invoked paramountcy powers to override municipal bylaws and keep the shelter open, without a city permit.