Homeless shelter future fuels simmering dispute between province, Penticton council

B.C. Housing Minister David Eby listens during a news conference in Vancouver on May 24, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

PENTICTON, B.C. - A homeless shelter at the centre of a dispute between the British Columbia government and the City of Penticton was portrayed Tuesday as a drug den and a potential catalyst to spur action on housing in the Okanagan community during a special council meeting.

The future of the 42-bed downtown Victory Church shelter was placed in doubt earlier this month when Penticton council voted to reject B.C. Housing's application to extend its temporary-use permit beyond March 31 for another year.

Mayor John Vassilaki gave no indication during the meeting whether the city will shut down the 42-bed shelter next week or fight the province in court as it seeks to keep the facility open.

"We are working with the best interests of the public, their safety and their welfare and that's what we're interested in," Vassilaki told the meeting. "If it takes whatever it takes for us to continue on that course, that's what we're going to do."

The shelter lacks the necessary treatment and mental health supports for its residents, and nearby neighbours, particularly seniors, are raising concerns about safety issues, he said.

Housing Minister David Eby has said the province could use its authority to prevent the city from sending dozens of homeless people back onto the streets.

B.C. Housing was trying to find more permanent housing for the residents but needed more time and asked for the extension until next March, Eby said.

"Unfortunately, the wheels came off the bus when Penticton voted to close it," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Eby said he is concerned that the mayor has said the city may consider legal options if the province uses its power to keep the shelter open.

"That seems like a colossal waste of taxpayers' dollars to go to court to try to throw 42 people onto the street," he said.

Coun. Katie Robinson said the city and not the provincial government has been trying to find the proper services for the shelter's residents.

"All we've managed to do is produce nothing better than a legalized drug den in our community," she said. "It's not working."

But Coun. Julius Bloomfield suggested starting immediate talks with the province about homeless housing, a proposal that council voted against but placed on the agenda for its next meeting in early April.

"Our willingness to negotiate doesn't represent a weakness ... but rather an acknowledgment to hear the other side's opinion," said Bloomfield. "They may not be able to change our minds, but they will not be able to claim our minds are closed."

After publicly discussing the shelter for more than an hour, council adjourned to meet behind closed doors to consider legal issues affecting the city.

— By Dirk Meissner in Victoria

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2021.

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