During nearly four hours of discussion at a special meeting on Tuesday, Kamloops council approved a series of initiatives aimed at tackling street issues.
At least one such initiative has ruffled feathers, criticized as being a “political” decision targeting social agencies on the frontlines, while others are applauding the city for navigating the “tangled web” of jurisdictions.
The controversial initiative mandates that all current and future transitional and supportive housing projects commit to daily on-site nursing staff as required, 24-seven security and access to weekly mental health and/or addictions counselling services.
Coun. Kathy Sinclair was among three on council — along with Mayor Ken Christian and Coun. Arjun Singh — to vote against the initiative. Her opposition comes from the fact it places more costs on social agencies. Singh said security is pricey, noting the is paying $200,000 per year for private security on West Victoria Street, where a number of businesses have battled crime and vandalism.
Councillors Dale Bass, Dieter Dudy, Bill Sarai, Mike O’Reilly and Denis Walsh voted in favour of the provision, while Coun. Sadie Hunter recusing herself, due to a conflict of interest as head of A Way Home Kamloops, the social agency that addresses youth homelessness.
Canadian Mental Health Association executive director Alfred Achoba criticized the decision due to a lack of consultation on issues and resolutions.
“To me, it seems fairly political,” Achoba said. “The reason I say that is because some of these measures that are being required from us will not really offer the solution we need. Trying to require security and all of these issues unfairly targets the client. It unfairly labels supportive housing as being a problem. It’s not really a problem. We have a housing crisis. We are trying to find solutions to the many issues we are facing, which is mental health, addictions. We have an opioid crisis. To really pass this motion without any consultation done with us is just unfortunate.”
Councillors Bass and Sarai requested the special meeting, held independent of council’s regular sittings.
Sarai said security will be requested for new social housing projects or if negative incidents should arise at existing properties. He said the city wants the ability to request security from housing providers so criminal activity does not adversely affect neighbours. He cited 450 emergency calls to the Rosethorn social housing facility and adjacent Emerald Centre shelter on West Victoria Street in 2020, with emergency vehicles dispatched daily.
“It’s not directed at any of the non-profits,” Sarai said. “It’s directed at housing units that are providing transitional, social housing in the spectrum for individuals to get on their feet, get better, beat their addiction, get some mental health help, which is lacking. But in the meantime, they can’t be causing trouble in the neighbourhood and still be able to come into that building and have no consequences.”
Council is hearing from the public
Bass said council is trying to address problems as it hears concerns from the public. She said Tuesday’s meeting has drawn attention from Interior Health and BC Housing.
And the city is not alone in its frustrations. Mayors from across the province are calling for solutions. Penticton, fo example, is battling the province over the closure of a temporary shelter.
“I’m hoping that just the discussion itself will lead to some changes,” Bass said.
Other initiatives were also approved by council, including having staff report back with options for spending up to a half-million in COVID-19 relief funds on prevention and alleviation solutions, calling for a meeting with provincial counterparts, putting in place requirements for current and future housing projects and looking into costs for security in the North Shore and downtown corridors, said to be hit hardest by crime.
City community services director Byron McCorkell noted several issues playing out on the streets: an opioid crisis, poverty, drug addiction, mental-health issues, housing shortages, criminality and issues worsened by the pandemic.
McCorkell cited stigma, having heard concerns of too much social housing, while simultaneously having people aware of housing shortages. McCorkell said BC Housing has spent $87 million on 1,870 housing units in Kamloops, finding shelter for the homeless to seniors. He pointed to a storage facility on West Victoria Street as a made-in-Kamloops initiative, providing a place for the marginalized to store belongings.
“Our belief in our department is that there needs to be a community solution,” McCorkell said.
In order to facilitate that made-in-Kamloops solution, staff suggested an expanded role in provincial decision-making, with the city acting not only as a “co-ordinator,” but a “conductor.” The city, for example, has no say on the location of a housing project if BC Housing purchases property or partners with an agency or developer and the land does not require rezoning. It has led to concerns from the public — particularly businesses — about social housing and services congregating in one area, such as West Victoria Street. The city also has its own neighbourhood and community plans.
McCorkell explained the city’s involvement in social planning dates back to the early 2000s. City hall this week approved another managerial position— social and housing manager — and a social plan rewrite is expected next year.
Jurisdiction is an issue
One issue is jurisdiction. The city does not wish to wade too deeply and take on the financial burden. It is another issue raised by B.C.’s mayors, who are calling for a review of provincial financing to communities as they take on more responsibility — or are victims of downloading.”
Sarai’s motion targeted the province. One initiative passed by council requests an independent review of outcomes of current supportive housing projects in Kamloops, the impacts of housing projects and outcomes of individuals who have accessed these housing options and support programs.
It also calls for a stronger partnership between the city and BC Housing to review long-term housing projects for the community, along the lines of the aforementioned “conductor” role. Sarai said housing is not enough and gaps in services, such as treatment, are growing wider.
Similarly, council will request a meeting between the city and senior staff at the Ministry of Housing, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions to discuss the need for detox and recovery beds and a sobering centre. Past calls for a sobering centre have not been fruitful, but the province is looking into a pilot program for complex care housing facilities to serve people falling through the cracks in B.C.
Looking at funding for security
Council also voted to have staff come back with a report on a budget and funding options for eight hours per day security of the Tranquille Market and downtown areas until community services (bylaws) officer vacancies are filled. Councillors Bass, Dudy, O’Reilly, Sarai, Singh and Walsh voted in favour, while Mayor Christian and Coun. Sinclair were opposed.
North Shore Business Improvement Association executive director Jeremy Heighton lauded council’s leadership in taking a proactive approach to street issues. He called it a “tangled web of authorities” and said council’s efforts are appreciated. Heighton noted challenges in accountability.
Christian also spoke of what he called “decriminalized crime,” which involves the reluctance of the justice system to incarcerate criminals.
Bass had proposed a series of short- to long-term measures to prevent and alleviate street issues, from outreach to daytime space to tiny houses, with use of the COVID-19 relief funds from the provincial and federal governments.
The city has a pot of money from upper levels of government and Bass argued it should be used as the pandemic has worsened issues on the street. Council agreed to have staff come back with plans to use up to $500,000 of the funds, but would not agree to specifics. Bass said she is concerned the decision delays short-term solutions, but lauded council for a frank and lengthy discussion.
“I really felt it went well, that we started to think outside of that box I keep referring to,” she said.