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Downtown shelter proposal divides Courtenay council

Jun 14 2012

Courtenay council is looking to a mediator to help it decide whether an emergency shelter with a low-cost housing component should go in the downtown core.

Although the commercial zoning of the proposed site - purchased by the Comox Valley Regional District in October 2010 and still sitting empty - does not currently allow for a shelter, core commercial areas are appropriate locations for emergency shelters and transition housing, said a staff report delivered to council on Monday.

Staff suggested zoning for a new shelter be determined on a site-specific basis, as it had been for the current Salvation Army emergency shelter, which runs out of funding at the end of the month.

But Mayor Larry Jangula said he has been getting an earful from local business people who object to an emergency shelter downtown, especially on the site selected by the CVRD.

That location on Cliffe Avenue, the town's main drag, "is the most damaging to the business community," Jangula said Wednesday.

The site is near a mall with London Drugs, a bank, furniture store, liquor store, beauty salon and a fast food outlet.

"It's right in an area where business people depend on walkin and impulse buyers," Jangula said.

"All of these businesses have had people tell them they won't come back if the [shelter] is there."

A petition garnered 1,200 signatures from people opposed to the location of the new shelter.

But Coun. Ronna-Rae Leonard, who sits on the Comox Valley Housing Tax Force, believes that Courtenay needs an emergency shelter in its downtown core.

There are an estimated 250 homeless or needy people in Courtenay, a city of 24,000.

Over the last few months, the 19-bed Salvation Army shelter has had to turn away 21 people for lack of space.

"The problem is that building isn't built for that purpose," said Leonard.

She said the opponents of the new shelter "are taking the wrong approach, putting up barriers instead of creating solutions."

The housing task force is in the process of getting an outoftown mediator, or "consensus builder," to work with all sides to find a solution.

There's no benefit to pushing people out of the downtown and away from services like the soup kitchen, AIDS Vancouver Island, women's transition house, and mental health and addiction services, Leonard said.

"It doesn't make sense." Homeless people "are equal citizens of Courtenay and they deserve to freely walk the streets and gain access to services that they want or need," she said.

At the same time, Leonard said, she wants the business community to thrive.

"Why would I want to drive businesses under? I care about my downtown. I want to find a solution that gets people off the streets and create solutions to the problem."

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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