Supportive housing faces neighbourhood opposition

People living near the proposed site of a supportive housing project in Gibsons have begun circulating flyers saying the project is being presented as a “done deal” before their concerns have been fully heard.

The group includes Ian and Karen McGinnis, who wrote to MLA Nicholas Simons and MP Pam Goldsmith-Jones earlier this month in a letter copied to Coast Reporter that calls for “a serious second review about the creation of a supportive housing facility here in Gibsons.”

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Earlier this year, the federal government announced it was transferring the former RCMP building in the 700 block of School Road to the Town of Gibsons for the site of a supportive housing project similar to the one that opened recently in Sechelt.

BC Housing has committed about $14 million in capital funding for the project and $1 million in annual operating funding. The facility would be managed by RainCity Housing, the same group that manages the Sechelt project and the area’s homeless shelters.

Public consultations began in April with “small group discussions.” A larger public information meeting that had been expected in May will now be held later this summer.

More than a dozen residents of the area around the School Road property who’ve come together as an “informal” group to oppose the project met with Coast Reporter last week.

They said their concerns, which range from the fear the facility will end up housing people brought over from the Lower Mainland to the belief that residents with addictions or mental health issues could pose a risk to students at Gibsons Elementary and seniors living in the area, are based on information they learned at the small group sessions in April.

The flyer focuses on the group’s worries about the “low barrier” model for the housing, and the group cites news reports from Nanaimo and the Lower Mainland about claimed increases in crime and other issues in areas where low barrier supportive housing projects have already opened.

“We are not opposed to people having a home,” Beth Widsten said. “It is the location. This is not just in the backyard of neighbourhood residents, it is in the backyard of an elementary school.”

Linda Atkins said the neighbours also question the need for a 40-unit facility.

“The location on School Road is not suitable for this type of facility and if you do the math, the supportive housing in Sechelt should more than cover the homeless people on the Sunshine Coast,” she said. “The $14 million allocated to build another supportive housing facility in Gibsons could be better used in a larger community with larger homeless problems.”

As well as their concerns about the project itself, the resident group is unhappy with the approval process.

In their letter, which was also sent to mayor and council, Ian and Karen McGinnis claim that BC Housing isn’t following its own advice on gaining community acceptance for supportive housing developments, which includes forming a site review task force “to assess whether the site earmarked is the most suitable for the proposed client group.”

The letter asks Simons and Goldsmith-Jones to “visit Gibsons and walk with us from the school to the proposed site” and that the “target audience selected for tenancy be changed and if this won’t change, another site be chosen.”

Asked to respond to the concerns outlined in the letter, BC Housing provided a statement that said, in part, “When considering locations for supportive housing, we purposefully place supportive housing projects near residential communities and close to amenities and services in order to promote healthy relationships with neighbours and local businesses, allowing tenants to integrate into communities and instill a sense of belonging.”

BC Housing also pointed out that supportive housing sites are staffed 24/7 and “residents in these supportive housing units in Gibsons will sign and follow a Program Agreement that sets out expectations about appropriate and respectful behaviour, as it relates to the health and safety of themselves, other tenants and neighbours.” As well, an advisory committee “will support the successful integration of the new building and residents into the community.” 

“We have all decried the lack of urgent action on homelessness, so this is part of our community’s response to a critical situation,” Simons said when also asked to respond to the letter. “It’s unfortunate that the perception we get from our selective exposure to the homelessness crisis instills fears that could be difficult to alleviate.”

Simons said most, if not all, residents of the proposed facility will be from the lower Coast, and many will likely have immediate family members in the community.

The group behind the flyer is suggesting two alternatives – return to the proposal from Habitat for Humanity to build townhouses on the lot, or move the BC Housing project to another location.

“We feel Habitat for Humanity is a far better fit in this residential area,” the flyer says. “Families with families. Families close to schools.”

Atkins said property behind Sunnycrest Mall close to the new RCMP station “would be more suitable to all concerned.”

Gibsons chief administrative officer Emanuel Machado said the Town doesn’t own any property in that area, although there is a covenant on a large block that would allow the Town to get a small portion if, and when, that property is developed.

Machado also said the Town is aware of the concerns being raised in the community, and the first staff report on the rezoning application will likely come to council in July.

An information session and public hearing would follow, and Dez Delaney said the concerned neighbours see a strong showing at that hearing as their best option to convince councillors to change course.

“At this stage we’ve got to believe that despite everything that’s happened up to now that democracy will work and at the rezoning [hearing] we can make our voices heard and that by putting this brochure out we can try and educate people that perhaps the wisest thing to do is put a pause on [the project].”

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