At a rally in front of City Hall on Friday, Whispers of Hope board chair Louise Heck (centre front) invited anyone who has eaten, shopped, volunteered or otherwise been involved with Whispers to stand in solidarity on the steps of City Hall. (Kathleen Saylors/Grand Forks Gazette)

City postpones Whispers of Hope closure

The organizations will vacate the riverfront property within six months.

After a tension-filled week that included a rally on the steps of City Hall, the City of Grand Forks has issued notice to Whispers of Hope Benevolence Association and the Boundary Emergency and Transition Housing Society (BETHs) that the organizations have 30 days to come into compliance with their lease and the city’s bylaws.

The organizations will still be required to vacate the premises within six months, in advance of the end of the lease in June 2018, regardless of whether the property is brought to compliance within 30 days.

This move follows the city’s prior termination of the lease and order to stop operations within 48 hours that was given on Wednesday.

“Council re-visited the timelines in their decision from last week regarding the closure of the City owned building occupied by Whispers of Hope and BETHS,” reads a release published late Tuesday afternoon. “The City issued notice [Tuesday] for the soup kitchen, thrift store and emergency shelter to bring their premise into compliance with City bylaws within 30 days, and to maintain the standard set in the lease agreement, or they would be required to vacate the premise. The notice included direction to vacate the property within six months in accordance with the lease agreement.”

This decision by council follows escalating concerns over the state of the riverside park near Whispers of Hope, which is located at 7212 Riverside Drive, as well as broad public backlash to the decision to cease the community kitchen’s operations.

In an interview Friday morning, Grand Forks mayor Frank Konrad said the issue had become increasingly serious, reaching a fever point this spring.

“When you have statements like ‘we are leaving Grand Forks’ or tourists saying, ‘we are never coming back to Grand Forks,’ it is quite an alarming situation we have never encountered before,” he said. “We have had homeless here for years but it is growing and that is the element that sends a red flag.”

However, after a rally organized by residents in solidarity with Whispers on Friday, board president Louise Heck informed the community that Whispers would not be ceasing operations as ordered by Friday at 5 p.m. Many community members, including Dennis Tournemille, Ian Mitchell, Teresa Taylor and Ron Ball spoke in support of Whispers and the services it provides.

How we got here

Whispers of Hope and BETHs signed a lease with the City of Grand Forks in August 2015 for the building and small fenced property at 7212 Riverside Drive.

Over the course of the last year, many members have council have expressed a desire to see Whispers moved from that location and the lease not renewed when it was due to expire in June 2018.

Residents have expressed concerns about drug use and garbage along the riverside spot for more than a year. Posts on social media, as well as residents who have attended council meetings, say the campers in tents along the river, needles, human waste and aggressive people have made the riverside path “unusable.”

Members of council, including Konrad, have said on many occasions that the problem — which is attributed to clients of Whispers of Hope (though it is recognized by both sides that the problem exists largely off the property that Whispers leases) — has ruined the riverfront walkway for residents and tourists.

At a Whispers of Hope board meeting on July 17, then-Whispers of Hope coordinator Gordon Schuss said he had begun the process of ceasing the operations of the community kitchen. Schuss said he felt compelled to involve outside agencies in what he saw as a lapse in health, safety and security protocols for clients and staff of the community kitchen. In response, many board members in attendance at the meeting said they were unaware of the alleged serious lapses Schuss presented and said they had never been brought to the board’s attention for fixing.

Last week Schuss confirmed to the Gazette that he had been relieved of his duties as the coordinator of Whispers of Hope.

Violations of the lease

In the revised notice to Whispers and BETHs dated Tuesday, the city included information that was previously in camera about the violations of the Whispers lease.

According to the notice those violations include installing storage containers on the property in contravention of Bylaws No. 1919; 1606 and 1999; permitting the property to become unsightly against Bylaw No. 1962; permitting the property to be used in a way that “disturbs the peace, rest, enjoyment comfort or convenience” of the neighbourhood against Bylaw No. 1963; and using the property in a way that has caused “waste, spoil, or destruction to the property” or “nuisance or annoyance to the owners and occupiers of adjoining lands or public generally.”

Notice has been given allowing Whispers and BETHS 30 days to come into compliance; if compliance is not reached within 30 days the city said it will terminate the lease without further notice.

According to the letter, the lease is also terminated six months from Tuesday, effective even if the contraventions have been resolved.

“The City regrets that it is in the position of having to terminate the lease. However, the impact of your use of the property on the neighbourhood and the public generally has left the city with no real alternative,” the letter reads.

Termination of the lease

Although the Boundary Emergency and Transition Housing Society (BETHs) is not currently operating, Konrad said both organizations are named on the lease and therefore both are affected.

In an interview Friday morning, Konrad said the complaints from city residents numbered too many to ignore. He estimated that number to be “dozens,” though less than a hundred.

While dozens may seem like a small number, Konrad said those opinions had to be taken seriously.

“The number may seem a small percentage relative to the population, but that is not a fair assessment. You have to consider the concentration of where it is happening. Those citizens’ complaints are very viable, because that is the portion of the community being impacted,” he said.

Konrad said he recognized that it was a select few clients causing the problems and that the city is not “turning its back on the homeless.”

Konrad cited the city’s move to create a stakeholder task force on the issue of homelessness in the community. While the task force has not yet been formed, he said there is tremendous interest from stakeholders across the board.

Clients of Whispers of Hope said they were shocked to hear about the closure, and many were not sure what their next move would be should Whispers shut its doors.

Melissa Sahturis, who identified herself as a client of Whispers, said that while she has a home she rents, she uses the community kitchen because she has few resources left after making her rent payment.

To her, Whispers is about more than just the food.

“I use it for food, a lot of my friends come here, we have coffee and talk,” she said. “It is a place where people feel comfortable.”

Many other clients who spoke with the Gazette both on and off the record reiterated the feelings of community and friendship that made Whispers indispensable to them. Many said that would be the biggest loss of the kitchen’s closure.

On Friday, Whispers of Hope cook Sylvia Sklapsky said she does not believe closing the kitchen is an effective solution to the problems facing the community.

In fact, Sklapsky said that residents may well see the problems exacerbated because former clients have no access to a meal.

“When they shut this down they will really see crime and drugs. It will bring more drugs, more overdoses, more suicide,” Sklapsky said. “I believe we do a good service and at least deserve a bit of help, compassion and understanding from the city. I think we’ll have more overdoses and suicides.”

Neither Sklapsky nor Sahturis could be reached for updated comment before press time on Tuesday following the city’s revised notice.

Konrad said Friday he is unsure if closing Whispers would fix the problem — but that the hope is that the problem will “dissipate” by removing the service from the downtown core.

“The province has to step up to the plate here, there is no question,” Konrad said. “This homeless issue is not just here. We are not unique, but I really say they have to step up because it is getting worse and worse.”

The months ahead

The city said it feels the extension will help the societies move forward.

“The revised notice will give the societies additional time to plan their transition while enforcing the City’s bylaws and sections of the lease that have lapsed over the last year,” the release said.

Last week Konrad declined to answer all questions regarding legal opinions the city may have sought or any potential further legal action. The city also declined to provide council’s voting record on the resolution.

Contacted by the Gazette on Tuesday afternoon, Heck said that while this is not a solution, this extension will give the organization a reprieve.

“We will regroup and come up with a plan,” she said. She deferred further comment until after meeting with her board.

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