Sechelt council has given first reading to the zoning changes that will allow BC Housing to convert the Upper Deck Guest House at 5653 Wharf Ave. into a homeless shelter.
BC Housing has signed a 29-month lease agreement with Upper Deck, and the proposed shelter will house 22 clients. It will be operated by RainCity Housing.
After some discussion around process and timelines, first reading passed unanimously Dec. 6 with Mayor Bruce Milne absent.
While they’re poised to move ahead with the Upper Deck rezoning, council also released a decision made at a closed session Nov. 15 to deny BC Housing’s request to temporarily lease land at Ebbtide and Trail for a larger shelter that could accommodate upwards of 30 people.
The denial motion reads, in part, “Council acknowledges the seriousness of the lack of housing in the community and the need for emergency shelter and resolves to address the issue through a full public process to be completed by summer 2018.”
First reading of the Upper Deck application sets up a public hearing to be held on Dec. 19 with final votes on the bylaw spread over two meetings – morning and evening – on Dec. 20.
If everything goes as scheduled, the shelter will open its doors the next day, according to BC Housing’s Craig Crawford.
Crawford made the commitment at a Dec. 4 public meeting on the proposal where, unlike a previous meeting on the Ebbtide and Trail plan, there was no significant opposition and several calls to move ahead as fast as possible.
“We’re all for it. It means people will be waking up in a bed to a hot meal for Christmas, hopefully. All people want is a bed for Christmas,” one shelter client told the crowd.
Several speakers, including Crawford, took the opportunity to thank Upper Deck owner Tanya Hall for coming forward in October to offer to lease her premises.
BC Housing is clear, however, that establishing a shelter at the Upper Deck is an interim measure. St. Hilda’s is able to handle about 15 users right now, and RainCity Housing said they’ve been turning away two or three people a night on average and they estimate the homeless population on the Sunshine Coast is around 90.
“We’re looking at the Upper Deck as an immediate response. It’s a short-term opportunity that came up and we’re acting on that,” Crawford said.
Crawford also said BC Housing is still planning to apply for rezoning for property it owns on Hightide Avenue to build a supportive housing project.
Most of the questions and concerns raised were around the district’s process, such as why a rezoning is even needed, given that the Upper Deck already provides temporary accommodation, and why RainCity can’t simply move people into the hostel now on “good faith” while the rezoning is completed.
Eleonora Molnar, who launched an online petition urging the district to declare a state of emergency and open the shelter right away, said that petition has hit 2,500 signatures.
“I feel there is an opportunity here, and as a caring community we should open the shelter immediately,” she said. “I respect the role of the District of Sechelt in trying to follow the process laid out before them in terms of approving such development proposals … but I do feel there’s some middle way where we can respect the process and open the shelter immediately.”
Another speaker suggested there might be a loophole in the fact that the Upper Deck’s current zoning allows for accommodation for the travelling public. “These people do not have a home, they do not have an address, they are the travelling public. Why can they not be there?” she asked.
Another question that came up was about the long-term impact of changing the zoning on that property to allow a “shelter residential” use.
Sechelt’s development planner Angela Letman acknowledged that the rezoning would apply to the entire property and would be on the books from the day of approval forward, but she also said the planning department recommended that option over a temporary use permit, because it would also require Official Community Plan changes that would take more time than the rezoning.