New digs

Tony Laing, executive director of the Penticton and District Society for Community Living, inside the former Victory Church, which will become an emergency homeless shelter effective Nov. 1.

An emergency homeless shelter will open Nov. 1 at the former home of the Victory Church in downtown Penticton, after city council voted unanimously Tuesday to grant the required permit.

The 6-0 vote – with Coun. Jake Kimberley absent while recovering from a stroke – came after nearly two hours of discussion with Tony Laing, head of the Penticton and District Society for Community Living, which will operate the 42-bed shelter at 352 Winnipeg St.

Members of council expressed deep reservations with the plan, but went along with it anyway.

“We were put in a position (today) with no other viable alternative but being backed into a corner and having to approve something most of us don’t feel is an appropriate,” Coun. Katie Robinson said after the vote.

The site has been serving as a hygiene centre for the homeless population since the spring, offering access to washroom and laundry facilities, plus other services. It is also set up with 20 beds to allow homeless people to isolate if they contract, or are suspected to have contracted, COVID-19.

But contrary to what council was told two weeks ago, the new shelter isn’t going to be activated only as need arises, but rather is expected be open Nov. 1 through March 31, after which PDSCL’s lease expires.

Laing said that’s because only 30 of the 55 shelter beds at Compass House, which is also operated by PDSCL, are open due to COVID-19 distancing requirements, necessitating the need for a new space.

Still, “It won’t be enough,” said Laing. “We had 75 people at one point in January last year.”

He said BC Housing has provided funding for 20 to 30 beds at the former Victory Church, and he might have to ask for more money if demand exceeds that. Had council turned him down, said Laing, he would have gone looking for a church basement instead.

Responding to other concerns from council, Laing confirmed there will be an overdose prevention site where guests can use drugs because “it’s part of the philosophy of low-barrier housing.” He said Compass House, which also has such a space, records an average of five overdoses per month.

As for staffing, there will be a minimum of two people working at the former Victory Church at all times, plus 24-hour security, according to Laing. He admitted, however, that guards can do little outside of the shelter besides asking people to move along.

“They’re security guards, not private police. They don’t have a lot of power,” said Laing.

And he bristled at the suggestion PDSCL should be responsible for its clients’ actions outside its facilities.

“We as an organization don’t hold ourselves accountable for every homeless person in Penticton,” said Laing, who suggested that would be like holding a hotel responsible if one of its guests creates a nuisance at the beach.

Laing, who noted his organization has an $11-million annual budget with 150 staff at eight locations, agreed there is no ideal location for an emergency shelter, but said the old Victory Church is pretty close thanks to its central location, open spaces and facilities.

“Most people would want us to put the homeless way out of town where they can’t be seen and can’t be heard and we forget about them,” said Laing.

Plans for the new shelter were dogged by existing concerns about Compass House at 1706 Main St. and the impacts it’s had on neighbouring business.

Roger Evans, who manages the Compass House shelter and will handle the new one too, also spoke to council and acknowledged there were some growing pains.

“We had a fairly steep learning curve. We met that challenge,” said Evans.

“I have an excellent team who work extremely hard to support arguably very difficult clientele, but we do the best we can.”

BC Housing funds operations like Compass House, but hires local groups like PDSCL to run them. The Crown corporation didn’t send anyone to Tuesday’s meeting due to a blackout on communications during provincial elections.

Laing blamed that blackout for BC Housing’s lack of public communication regarding the new shelter.

The old Victory Church was purchased by a developer earlier this year and is slated to be converted into a mix of residential and commercial space, with a mini-storage business where the parkade is now. That work is expected to begin after PDSCL’s lease runs out March 31.