After several hours of debate spanning two public meetings, Whispers of Hope Benevolence Association and the Boundary Emergency and Transition Housing Society (BETHS) will be allowed to remain in their current location until March 31, contingent on city council approval of some of the facility being brought into compliance with code.
The community kitchen and thrift store operated by Whispers of Hope, as well as BETHS extreme weather shelter, were due to be evicted from the current location on Riverside Drive on Feb. 8, six months after the termination of the lease was issued by council in August.
The issue of the lease was discussed twice on the agenda. During the morning meeting, Whispers coordinator Melissa Shulga appeared as a delegation before the committee to ask council to rescind the eviction notice and allow Whispers to remain in their location until the end of the lease, slated for June.
Council also debated a motion put forward by Coun. Colleen Ross to allow the group to remain in their location until May 1. Ross stressed that she was not rescinding the eviction, merely giving the groups — especially BETHS — a chance to finish the winter season before moving.
Questions about the building
Included in the agenda package was documentation from Grand Forks Fire/Rescue Chief Dale Heriot as well as city building inspector David Bruce about numerous deficits in the building, including issues with the range hood ventilation that Heriot said were not corrected for nearly two months, as well as Bruce’s concerns with the exposed wiring in the building and the occupancy load.
Shulga said that Whispers had not been made aware of those issues before the documentation was made public. Since that time, Shulga said the range hood issue had been corrected.
“The only way we actually heard about this was through public notices,” she said. “That is a trend, unfortunately, often we only hear about these concerns when the public has been made aware and there is a lot of misinformation.”
In the termination of lease issued in August the city detailed bylaw contraventions it required Whispers to correct within a month.
In response to a question from the mayor, Shulga said the group has been actively looking for a new location and is working with a realtor. There are issues with finding locations with enough parking, kitchen capacity and square footage, she said.
After numerous appeals from the gallery about the value of the service, Grand Forks mayor Frank Konrad repeatedly urged council and members of the gallery to consider the issue as an operational one with the evidence in front of them, rather than an emotional or social issue to do with the homeless population.
“This discussion today is turning into the social elephant in the room. We have to keep this operational. We are basing this on lease, contraventions and non-compliance,” Konrad said.
There were also questions raised about the building’s electrical infrastructure, whether it was done by a licensed electrician and was up to code and with a permit. The city said no documentation to that effect was provided to the city. Councillors also raised issues with liability on the taxpayers, and issues with drug use on the premises.
A woman who identified herself as Claudette spoke to the issue, noting that support from BETHS and Whispers is what helped her in a time of need.
“Out of those negative statements, I am a success. That food saved my life,” she said. “I am very nervous right now because you guys are all professionals and I am from the street. You guys all have homes, I [wouldn’t] have a home if it wasn’t for that place that gave me a meal every day.”
“I am here as a friend and a person of the community. Grand Forks is my community. For me to stand here takes a lot of courage on my behalf. I am straight and that is because of this program and these women,” she continued.
Throughout the discussion, councillors raised concerns with the state of the building and liability for the city should there be an accident. Coun. Neil Krog questioned the level of Whispers’ liability insurance and measures in place to protect the city.
“Had council and I been aware of the issues particularly with wiring I would not have supported the lease and [would have] wanted to see building vacated immediately,” Coun. Christine Thompson said. “I hesitate, quite frankly, to allow it [to remain] open until Feb. 8, because of the fact that we know, council now knows the condition of the building … if there were an incident and lawsuit we are personally responsible.”
Konrad confirmed there is indemnity in place for the councillors, but said it would still cost the taxpayers in legal fees.
However, Ross said she believed the safety inspection done by Heriot and Bruce on Jan. 4 was a last-minute play by the city.
“I sent my motion to council Dec. 28 and I believe there was a scrambling by sending over the fire chief and building inspector quickly to find other reasons to shut [Whispers and BETHS] down,” she said. “On Jan. 4 there was a report with what else is wrong. No matter what you do and how you defend yourself you are hooped … they have been working hard to find practical reasons to defeat [my] motion.”
Chief Administrative Officer Diane Heinrich said the inspection was as a result of a “dire complaint” the city had received with respect to the stove at Whispers.
Other options available
The councillors also spoke to other proposed options from BC Housing, including funding from the agency to put homeless residents up in motels. However, BETHS coordinator Steve McGibbon (who was in the gallery) said that while there had been discussions, nothing had been finalized in writing to solidify that agreement.
Throughout both the morning and evening meetings, various councillors — most notably Thompson — suggested that churches should be involved in the solution. She cited examples of renting out their space or hosting rotating kitchens or meal deliveries as examples.
Shulga, throughout her remarks, stressed the need for the city and Whispers to strengthen relationships and increase communication between the two going forward. Shulga said many of the city’s concerns were not communicated to the organization, and/or were vague in nature, such as issues of non-compliance with the bylaws when the eviction notice was issued.
Ross motions for extension
Ross’ motion was brought forward to immediately following Shulga’s presentation. Ross asked for the two organizations to be permitted to remain in their current location on Riverside Drive until May 1.
“We take food off plates and pull blankets off bodies. I’m hoping to debate this today. These are basic human rights,” Ross said.
The motion was forward to the evening meeting of council as a late item.
During the evening meeting, Ross read a statement in defence of her motion, noting that she was not asking council to rescind the eviction notice.
“Both BETHS and Whispers have clearly articulated their desire to comply. The lease will still end. Operational issues always have a social impact,” she said. “I am not emotional about this, but the people put out on the streets and refused meals will be emotional.”
Some councillors voiced support for Ross’ motion, notably Coun. Bev Tripp; however others cited in-camera documents as the reason for voting against the motion. In response to a question from the Gazette, Konrad said those documents are not available.
Move to compromise
Several councillors said during discussion that while they had heard from vocal supporters of the shelter, both in person and in petition, they had also received many comments from the community supporting closing the building. When asked by the Gazette, no councillor could identify a specific number of letters and comments to that effect.
During discussion Konrad said that people “from within the organization” have come to council and requested “the place be shut down.”
Coun. Chris Hammett put forward a friendly amendment to the motion, suggesting that an April 1 extension be given contingent on proof by the Jan. 29 meeting that wiring and other risks have been mitigated.
Meanwhile, Konrad said he felt the organization could find a solution in the three weeks remaining until Feb. 8.
“If they don’t have a place now they will not be moving in two and a half weeks. You can’t even find an apartment in that time. This is a bad situation, we need to make the best of a bad situation,” Hammett said.
“We cannot just abandon people sleeping outside, we cannot in good conscience do that, I don’t even think legally we can do that. We need to get them over this hump. I am not happy there is no resolution after six months, but we need to do something.”
While Ross said that the groups would be out by April 1, Thompson questioned whether the organizations would be coming back with another request for an extension.
That amendment failed to be approved, leading council to vote on the original motion (an extension until May 1). Due to confusion by Coun. Neil Krog about which motion was on the table, that motion carried.
When the mistake was uncovered, council debated how to bring it back to the table for reconsideration. Ultimately, Konrad brought the motion back for reconsideration.
Because amendments cannot be brought back to the table in their original form once they have been voted down, Krog suggested the amendment to the extension be March 31 (rather than April 1). That amendment carried, so the amended motion was considered.
The amended motion allowed that Whispers and BETHS be allowed to remain in their current location until March 31, contingent upon information to be provided at the Jan. 29 meeting that shows concerns to range hood ventilation, electrical wiring and proof of insurance are addressed.
The final voting record was Ross, Tripp, Hammett, Butler and Krog in favour; Thompson and Konrad against.