New Westminster council supports modular housing project at tense public hearing

New Westminster city council unanimously supported a modular housing project for homeless women following a raucous six-hour public hearing in council chambers Tuesday night.

About 250 people descended on city hall for a public hearing that included allegations of intimidation and bullying. Several police officers were summoned to city hall to ensure things didn’t get out of hand.

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About 100 people spoke about the plan to build a 44-unit modular housing project at 838 Ewen Ave., which will provide housing to women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The project will be located on city-owned land, with BC Housing providing 100 per cent of the capital and operating funds and the Elizabeth Fry Society operating the facility that will include on-site support services.

The emotionally charged public hearing saw supporters, including numerous representatives from the Elizabeth Fry Society, other service providers and residents from across the city, appealing to council to support a project that would provide much-needed housing for homeless women.

“It can happen to anyone,” said one woman. “These women deserve a chance to at least prove themselves before they have the door shut on them.”

A large contingent of Queensborough residents spoke against the proposed official community plan and zoning amendment, many saying the site should remain as the park space it was envisioned to be. Many Queensborough residents stated a modular housing project for homeless women should not be placed on a site frequented by children.

Queensborough resident Ashifa Dhanani said more than 2,200 Queensborough residents signed a petition opposing the project at this location, where more than 700 children gather daily at the schools, community centre and playground. Sue Kenny said the city would be creating a "hub of vulnerability" by placing homeless women on same site that's home to programs attended by children and seniors.

Justine Patterson, who works for Elizabeth Fry, said the project will offer supports to women while they are rebuilding their lives. She said it will play a “critical role” in helping families who have children in government care, because it will provide a pathway to safe, stable housing, something they need to be reunited with their children.

Brad Cavanagh said the Yes In New West letter-writing campaign generated 196 letters in support for the project, of which 25 per cent were from Queensborough.

Jamie Mead said the overall transparency and information sharing has been “abhorrent” with this process and it appears the city is “rushing it as fast as you can” to take advantage of provincial funding.

Mayor Jonathan Cote asked the crowd to refrain from applauding after speakers so everyone felt comfortable, but Queensborough residents concerned about the project regularly applauded and cheered after speakers. Two on-table pieces of correspondence were circulated to council during the public hearing, one from Shawn Bayes, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society, who stated a number of women who had been waiting to speak left after feeling intimated by residents who were standing over them, yelling and clapping.

“There was no order and safety secured in the area,” she wrote.

New Westminster resident and council candidate Nadine Nakagawa also wrote to council during the meeting to express her “extreme disappointment and dismay” at the behavior in the lobby of city hall, despite the best efforts of a city employee. She suggested the city needs a debriefing on how it can better manage these types of public engagement opportunities in the future.

Queensborough resident Jagjit Sall told council people who have voiced concerns about the location of the project have been subjected to an “underlying bullying attitude” from the "yes" group. He said someone contacted him on Twitter and suggested he “go back home.”

“The Yes side negates the fact that nearly all Queensborough residents are saying yes to these ladies. We are saying yes, just not at this location,” he said. “We should not be made to feel guilty or bullied for stating the reason we don’t support the location.”

While some social media comments suggested police were offering rides home to people who felt intimidated by others, Chief Const. Dave Jones said that wasn’t the case. He said there were no safety issues related to the crowd gathered in the lobby, but police officers provided a presence in city hall to ensure no issues arose and no intimidation occurred.

As council members voted on the application, a group of Queensborough residents left council chambers, loudly saying: "November guys." (A civic elections is taking place in October, but has traditionally been held in November.)

Council members unanimously supported third reading of the application, saying it’s the right location for the project and noting the need for housing to address homelessness.

In their words:

“People are ending up homeless, particularly women, just because of lack of access for affordable housing.” – Naomi Brunemeyer, regional director, BC Housing

“I know as parents it’s very important for us to safeguard our children’s wellbeing and their safety, but I really put to you that this is not the danger we need to fear. This is not the thing we need to guard our children from. In fact it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us as parents to have a teachable moment – to teach our children about community, and about compassion, and about diversity.” - Mary Ann McKenzie

“We want this project in our community – just not in the park,” said Alda Porra, who lives across the street from the site.

“Let park be park.” – Amrik Rattan

“Let’s be compassionate spark of light and help 44 of our neighbours, who for whatever circumstances don’t have somewhere to live or about to lose the place where they live. Let’s be that spark of light and say yes.” - Brad Cavanagh.

"If anyone can do this, Queensborough can.” – Queensborough resident Marilyn Pitt

“We are not saying don’t put the housing in Queensborough. We are saying please put it in a different location that is not so close to the hub.” – Bernadette Gourlay

“More and more I see women at the drop-in who have lost their homes because of increased rents.”  – Amanda Devlin

“The majority of our community has shared with you on multiple occasions our concerns with this site. However as a community we also remain committed to this initiative and continue to ask with you to work with us. The majority of the Queensborough residents support the project and want to support it in our neighbourhood. … . Let’s do this right with the support of the community.  Let’s not lose the community support by forcing it on a location where it sets everyone up for failure.”  – Sukh Singh.

 “With this approach, rushed without the support of the residents, there is going to be a bumpy, bumpy ride and long-term negative impacts in Queensborough.” - Ashifa Dhanani, Queensborough Residents for Responsible Community Planning

“I have seen the look in women’s eyes when they are with their children and there is just nowhere to go.” – Dave Brown

“People make me feel like crap, like I don’t care.  I do care. I don’t take this lighting. The homes are needed.”  - Queensborough resident Frank Bordignon, who thinks a different location in Queensborough would be better for the project.

“Please do not ask women to stay homeless because we can’t make the right decision.” – Briana Harris

“Please do not ignore the voice of Queensborough. Work with us, not against us.” – Jaswinder Rattan

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