Newly built beds on the bottom floor of Haven in the Hollow. Their use awaits the decision of district council to increase the zoning capacity of the building from 31 to 71 people. / Patrick Penner Photo

Mission service workers, property owners at odds over increasing shelter space for homeless

Public hearing over bylaw amendment to increase Haven in the Hollow’s capacity by 40 held on July 27

Moving forward on Mission’s homelessness crisis saw two opposing viewpoints clash in a public hearing on July 27 – local property owners versus those in the social service field.

The hearing took input over a proposal to change a zoning-bylaw amendment to increase the maximum capacity of shelter beds from 31 to 71 at Haven in the Hollow. In total, there were 28 letters of support, with 15 voices opposed.

Property owners’ biggest concerns were crime, drug use, property damage, devaluation of nearby businesses, real estate and safety – all of which is attributed to the shelter. They fear the issues will grow worse with more space in the shelter.

“Do we tax payers have no rights?” reads one letter in opposition. “Shame on you for even considering this. Put this crime-ridden sanctuary in your neighbourhood if you believe that this is a good idea,” reads another.

Richard Quinlan, an opponent of the amendment who lives near the shelter, said he was homeless when he was 14 and used to sympathize, but now his “heart has hardened.”

“This is an out of control issue now,” Quinlan said. “How is that going to get better by doubling the amount of beds?”

For workers in the social-services field, the very-visible issues associated with homelessness are actually exacerbated by the lack of shelter space, which forces the homeless population into desperation.

“The heart of the problem is that homelessness isn’t pretty and that many don’t want it in their backyard,” said Michelle Puffer, executive director of Mission Community Services (MCS). “Unfortunately, not giving shelter space actually makes the problem worse, as then individuals have no choice … We leave them with nowhere to go.”

The lack of shelter space since council stated a commitment to homelessness in 2018, is “embarrassing,” said Lisa Kelly, team chair of Mission Outreach Services.

She said the community has plenty of committed social service workers in areas ranging from harm reduction to mental health to addiction – but the most glaring issue is space not support.

“We almost have more outreach workers than we do shelter beds,” Kelly said. “You can’t have a conversation around health and safety when you are getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, you haven’t had any sleep, you don’t want to see a doctor because you’re filthy, you can’t shower and you can’t wash your clothes.”

Mission’s homeless population has nearly tripled since the last count in 2017. It saw the largest spike of any municipality in the entire region, and is proportionally overweight, accounting for 19 per cent of all homeless people in the Fraser Valley.

The District of Mission’s 2020-2024 Housing Needs Assessment identified the need for 170 shelter beds to house the district’s homeless people. There are currently 80 beds available, according to the assessment, and shelters turned away 4,020 people from 2018 to 2019 due to being at capacity.

The number of available beds in Mission was recently reduced by 44 after closure of The Stage, which was being leased and used as a temporary shelter to allow for social distancing during COVID-19 pandemic.

Property owners in opposition were supported by Mission MP Brad Vis, who wrote a letter and signed his landlord’s petition against the amendment. Social service providers were supported by Maple Ridge MLA Bob D’Eith, five non-profit organizations (four local) and two churches. Mission businesses fell on both sides.

Vis wrote that while he generally supports the shelter, MCS did “not pro-actively communicate their intention to double the size.”

“My office did not receive a neighbourhood plan to address the public safety concerns of the tenants … and the impact the expansion could have on our respective services and small businesses,” Vis said. “I am perplexed my input was not formally sought prior to the public hearing.”

But Mission Community Service staff reached out to Vis multiple times prior to the public hearing, and invited him to view the new shelter space, according to Puffer. The Record reached out to Vis for further comment, but did not receive a response.

“We were disappointed by [his] statement,” she wrote in an email. “The increase in shelter beds would also allow us to increase our staffing model and have staff that can be out in the neighbourhood assisting and encouraging people back to the shelter.

“We have been working on a neighbourhood plan which will see a neighbourhood steering committee formed which will meet regularly to review what’s happening in the area. We would certainly appreciate having MP Vis or one of his staff involved with that.”

The capacity limit in the building’s zoning – the reason why a public hearing was held in the first place– is “very unusual,” said Puffer, who said the limit was already being exceeded from November through March when the building operates as an Extreme Weather Response shelter.

She said MCS staff are removing nearby graffiti and have installed fences around the facility to isolate adjacent neighbourhoods.

Tyler Weatherup, manager of housing and outreach at MCS said the shelter is not just increasing capacity, but has also acquired additional funding and almost doubled their staff with 18 new hires.

“Right now, with only have 27 beds, we experience a lot of turn-aways,” said Weatherup. “Unfortunately, in 10 years of doing this, I’ve seen some pretty ugly outcomes after turning somebody away.

“It’s not something we like to do and I think it’s probably the toughest part of any shelter worker’s job, telling someone to go and spend the night outside.”

Tyler Weatherup, manager of housing and outreach at Mission Community Services, standing near the new front of the recently renovated building. Patrick Penner / Mission Record.

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