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City of Penticton asks premier to step into ongoing emergency shelter dispute

A crime-density map from the City of Penticton. According to the city, the emergency homeless shelter has become the epicentre for property crime in Penticton. City of Penticton

The City of Penticton is urging B.C. Premier John Horgan to intervene in its public fight with the province over a controversial homeless shelter.

On Tuesday, the city released an embargoed letter to the media, with Mayor John Vassilaki asking Horgan “to resolve the impasse between city residents and the Attorney General and Minister of Housing, David Eby.”

Located on Winnipeg Street, the 42-bed shelter was originally opened in November 2020 and was slated to close on March 31. However, BC Housing asked for a year-long extension, with city council flatly saying no.

Read more: Penticton seeks support from other B.C. municipalities in shelter fight with province

That sparked a war of words between the ministry and city council, with the province stepping in and overriding council’s unanimous decision.

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In rejecting BC Housing’s request in early March, Coun. Julius Bloomfield noted, “We are simply holding BC Housing to their original promise to us and to the community.”

Later that month, Eby said the province would be using the province’s paramountcy authority to keep the shelter open.

“I hope that in the weeks and months ahead, Penticton’s council will reconsider their approach,” Eby said.

“If they do, we are always ready and willing to work with them. I firmly believe that although it is often more challenging than going it alone, provinces and cities produce better results when we work together.”

Click to play video: 'City of Penticton and BC government feud over temporary shelter continues' City of Penticton and BC government feud over temporary shelter continues
City of Penticton and BC government feud over temporary shelter continues – Apr 21, 2021

Currently, the city is mulling the possibility of legally challenging the province in court.

The letter says “Penticton voters have expressed overwhelming support in two surveys for you to step in and work with city council to correct the minister’s handling of a temporary winter shelter located in the downtown core.”

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It says Penticton, with a population of 33,000, provides 1,906 provincially funded units of non-market housing.

“This housing is the result of positive partnerships that refl­ect the very spirit of your own commitment to work with local municipalities,” the letter said.

“However, under minister Eby’s leadership, your government has changed course on cooperating with local communities. The minister has misinformed British Columbians by inferring that Penticton is not doing its part in supportive housing.

“This is despite his own ministry’s data indicating that Penticton has the highest number of supportive beds per capita in the B.C. Interior.”

Click to play video: 'City of Penticton seeking public input on fight with province over emergency shelter' City of Penticton seeking public input on fight with province over emergency shelter
City of Penticton seeking public input on fight with province over emergency shelter – Apr 1, 2021

The city also issued a crime density map, which shows the emergency homeless shelter has become the epicentre for property crime in Penticton.

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The city said the shelter has become a costly drain on police as well as being harmful to surrounding residents and businesses.

“Your government has not been silent, however, on provoking and polarizing legitimate concerns,” reads the letter. “Minister Eby threatened to bring 1,000 tents and sleeping bags into the city when the shelter’s permit for lawful use in winter expired.

“It is odd that the province’s top lawyer is silent on protecting vulnerable senior citizens from crime, but vocal on encouraging provincial action which directly infl­icts such crime on those same senior citizens.”

Lastly, the letter asked Horgan to “please reconsider minister Eby’s threat to invoke provincial paramountcy to maintain an unlawful use of the shelter and instead direct BC Housing to apply solutions already suggested by city staff to find a better location, as Penticton council requested in October 2020.”

Click to play video: 'Province willing to fight Penticton city council over future of downtown winter shelter' Province willing to fight Penticton city council over future of downtown winter shelter
Province willing to fight Penticton city council over future of downtown winter shelter – Mar 11, 2021

Global News has reached out to the premier’s office and the Ministry of Housing for comment.

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On Wednesday afternoon, the ministry issued a statement from Eby, which basically said his position is unchanged.

“The core of the issue is this: The mayor of Penticton wants to close a fully occupied homeless shelter in Penticton,” said Eby, noting the city’s statement also appeared as an ad in the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper.

“This would evict the 42 people who live in the shelter into the street, or a local park. There are no other shelter beds or homes available.

“To achieve this goal, the mayor is supporting legal action against the non-profit that runs the shelter. As a result, the people doing the work of sheltering and supporting the homeless in Penticton are now facing legal threats from the city.

“I talked to these workers. They’re kind and dedicated. Just the right people to help those in distress. They could easily give up, but they won’t. I’m grateful for that.”

Eby said Penticton has a serious and interrelated homelessness, mental health and addiction problem.

“I try to imagine how this long-term problem in Penticton will be improved if the mayor manages to put another 42 people out into the street,” said Eby.

“I wonder how leaving 42 people with nowhere to go at night will make seniors in Penticton feel safer or address crime rates, which is what the advertisement said the mayor wants.”

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