Charity serving homeless in Grand Forks, B.C., defies city-ordered closure

Despite receiving a notice from the city to cease operations, the Whispers of Hope Benevolent Association says it won't close its doors to those in need.

Association says closing down services will make things worse for homeless in nearby camp

Staff and volunteers at the Whispers of Hope Benevolent Association's soup kitchen in Grand Forks, B.C. (Whispers of Hope/Facebook)

A non-profit organization that serves the homeless in Grand Forks, B.C., plans to continue providing services this morning, despite a city order to cease operations.

On Aug. 2, the city instructed Whispers of Hope, which operates a soup kitchen, thrift store and neighbouring emergency winter shelter, to cease operations by the end of the day Aug. 4 and to vacate the building within 30 days.

"We plan to continue providing services one way or another," said the organization's board chair, Louise Heck.

"We're not going to abandon the people that we take care of — we feel very passionate about that."

'Concerns about public safety'

The soup kitchen, thrift store and emergency shelter are all located on a piece of city-owned land that backs onto a riverside park where a number of homeless people have set up a camp.

In a written statement, the city said it was concerned about vandalism, drug use and risk of a wildfire at the camp.

"Despite being sympathetic to the mission of the two societies, council believes that closing the premise will reduce the concentration of damage to public property, conflict, and concerns about public safety," read the statement.

Mayor Frank Konrad said he doesn't believe the registered non-profit organization should be held responsible for what occurs at the homeless camp. However, he stood by his decision to support the closure.

"The bottom line still comes down to the fact that [people from the camp] are frequenting their establishment," he told Chris Walker, host of CBC's Daybreak South.

Concern for city's image

Konrad said he is concerned the camp is having an impact on tourism.

"We have tourists coming and saying we're never coming back to Grand Forks because of what they're seeing and what they're witnessing. It needed to be done, there needed to be action taken," Konrad said.

Heck said the association hasn't violated any of the terms of its lease with the city — which expires in June 2018 — and the city hasn't stated under what grounds it's serving the eviction notice.

"The mayor is concerned about what people are seeing and such, but you know what, our homeless people are not blocking entrances to doors, they're not downtown panhandling because we're taking care of them," said Heck.

She said it's important the city work with service providers on long-term solutions, and closing the thrift store and soup kitchen would leave many in the community who are at risk of homelessness without essential services.

'Time-consuming complaints'

Whispers of Hope Benevolent Association is adjacent to a city park where homeless people have set up tents. The city said it has received a number of complaints and is concerned about public safety. (WOHBA)

A statement posted to the city's website on Aug. 2 said a number of homeless camps "have been repeatedly cleared by city staff or contractors when in place for more than a few days or weeks."

A staff report before council on July 17 stated the city has removed three homeless camps in June and that 10 still existed.

According the city's 2015 annual report, the bylaw office received between 90 and 100 bylaw complaints in 2015 and "one of the most-time consuming complaints relates to the large number of homeless people setting up camps along the river banks within the city limits."

City council agreed to start a homelessness task force but provided no details on when or what that would look like. The city's news release also stated it was open to "any course of action that will keep public spaces safe and available for everyone to use."

Heck had her own idea of where to start.

"Right now, the very first thing they could do is take a porta-potty down to those tenters they're so concerned about," she said.

With files from CBC Radio One's Daybreak South