Just a week after signing a lease, and days after the group took occupancy, a new planned community kitchen to be operated by Whispers of Hope is drawing mixed reactions from nearby residents and businesses.
Melissa Shulga, coordinator for Whispers of Hope, confirmed Friday the organization had signed a lease and taken occupancy for a space at 7229 Fifth Street, formerly a spa and yoga studio across the street from City Hall.
At the location, Whispers of Hope will be offering breakfast and lunch services to low income and/or homeless clients. They estimate feeding between 50 and 60 people per day, with operating hours of 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Breakfast will be a light, continental-style spread, while the lunch service will be a more robust meal. The services offered will be similar to those offered at the organization’s previous location.
While the group officially took occupancy on Friday, and signed the lease the week before, Shulga said they had begun preliminary work in approaching and lettering local businesses and residents in the neighbourhood, telling them about their plans to open in the location.
Reactions have been mixed so far, she said; many business owners have raised concerns about homelessness, criminal clientele and drug use in the neighbourhood as a result of Whispers’ presence.
Pending approvals and inspections, Shulga said she hopes they will be open and serving clients by early April, though acknowledges that might be ambitious. The kitchen operations will be scaled down, she said; much of the food prep will be done off site for a “heat-and-serve” style operation centering on variations on soup and sandwiches.
Shulga acknowledged the group’s last location on Riverside Drive attracted controversy, notably because many people experiencing homelessness camped along the banks of the river off Whispers’ property. She said she hopes that with the new location, that kind of behavior will be curbed.
“I love the location is very public, there is a lot of transparency there. With the layout of the last place, it was hidden, a lot left to imagination … I am confident that even with just the location we will be able to combat a lot of the issues,” Shulga said. “It is far more visible. From our doorstep even, if an individual comes for breakfast, and we can see [a campsite], we are inclined to say ‘I see you have a set up over there, we would rather you serve you after you get it cleaned up…’ We can help keep people informed and keep them accountable.”
Meanwhile, a loosely-organized group of residents called “Citizens for a Better Grand Forks” have organized a petition against the location. The group gathered outside a downtown grocery store on Monday and on Market Avenue on Tuesday, collecting signatures on a petition against the location.
Pamela Kennedy, who has been outspoken in the past for her opposition to the warming centre on Donaldson Drive and the Second Street housing development by BC Housing, said that as with other projects, it’s “location, location, location.”
“The soup kitchen would almost certainly encourage marginalized individuals with drug addictions and criminal backgrounds to congregate in the area,” a handout distributed by petitioners read. “As a result, residents in the area are more likely to experience increased risks to their personal safety and their property.”
Other factors in the group’s opposition to the location include proximity to the City Park campground and potential losses in tourism and revenue to the campground as a result of the kitchen location; as well as proximity to the splash park and the Second Street BC Housing project.
Kennedy said she does not want to see anyone hurt or go without the help they need – but that services like soup kitchens don’t go far enough to make a difference, and cause problems with a “core group of residents” who abuse the services and the community. Kennedy said Grand Forks’ problem isn’t out of hand, “but we need to handle it now, before it gets out of hand.” She said she would like to see more help available, and in a different location.
The Grand Forks Downtown Business Association said it has heard concerns from its member businesses regarding the location.
“Many business members of the GFDBA have expressed concerns to the DBA board about Whispers of Hope’s announcement to reopen their soup kitchen in the new location. The DBA has contacted WOH to open dialogue and relay these issues,” the DBA wrote in a statement to the Gazette. “The DBA is committed to the recovery of the downtown core, one that is economically viable, safe and prosperous.”
According to Kevin McKinnon, deputy corporate officer for the City of Grand Forks, Whispers of Hope will not have to apply for a business licence under the current business licencing bylaw because of its status as a non-profit organization. However, they will have to meet the standard fire, building and health inspections.
Shulga maintains the organization is interested in being “good neighbours” to the surrounding businesses and residents. She encourages anyone with concerns to reach out to see how the problem can be corrected, and said the organization is excited to be resuming services.
“I want people to feel compelled to stay in touch. Don’t let it become an issue. Let us know when it is a nuisance,” she said.
The Whispers of Hope thrift store will continue to operate at its Fourth Street location. Contact information for Whispers can be found at whispersofhope.ca.