British Columbia

B.C. housing minister says he won't stop lobbying city councils over decisions on homeless shelters

Housing Minister David Eby says he's willing to wade into city council decisions on homeless shelters — even if that means angering local politicians along the way.

'We need to get people inside,' David Eby says, as Penticton council rejects extension for shelter

Housing Minister and Attorney-General David Eby says the province is exploring its options after the City of Penticton rejected the extension of a permit allowing a homeless shelter in the middle of the city. (MIke McArthur/CBC)

Housing Minister David Eby says he's willing to wade into city council decisions on homeless shelters — even if that means angering local politicians along the way.

"I was doing things entirely backwards: It's much better to provide information to councils before the vote, so they're making a fully informed vote, rather than after the vote," said Eby, hours before the City of Penticton unanimously rejected an application by B.C. Housing to extend its permit for a homeless shelter located in the centre of the Okanagan city. 

That was despite council previously assuring him it would grant the extension, according to Eby.

The minister said a follow-up phone call with Mayor John Vassilaki went poorly. 

"I asked the mayor what's the plan, and he told me there'd be no more meetings and he hung up on me," Eby said Wednesday morning on CBC's Daybreak South.

Eby argued there's no current alternative for shelter residents once the permit expires at the end of the month, and said not extending it could create an indefinite homeless encampment similar to ones in Vancouver and Victoria.  

"There's simply no debate about what we need to do here. We need to get people inside, we need to get them the support they need," he said.

"Even leaving them in the emergency shelter is not an acceptable outcome, but emptying out the shelter into the park is bizarre to me."

Vassilaki says his council turned down B.C. Housing's application to extend the shelter permit because the Crown corporation should instead build a permanent facility for people living with homelessness.

Penticton city council wants to close a 42-bed emergency winter shelter at 352 Winnipeg St. at the end of March, citing the location as 'inappropriate' and too close to seniors' housing. (Google maps)

Eby vs. Cranbrook mayor

It isn't the first time in recent weeks Eby has waded into a debate over a homeless shelter in a B.C. community. 

In early February, he asked Cranbrook council to vote in favour of rezoning a property for a 40-bed shelter, which faced plenty of controversy in the city.

Council did approve the rezoning 5-2, but Mayor Lee Pratt was critical of Eby's influence. 

"That was totally an abuse of his position," said Pratt. 

"He's using his position of trying to influence a decision on this council, sitting around here trying to make a decision for the municipality and the citizens of our city … that was totally uncalled for."

Pratt said he didn't want to comment further on his statement, saying he was in discussions with the province.

But Eby defended proactively lobbying municipalities before their vote, saying it was preferable to the time lost in finding alternatives if councils voted against B.C. Housing proposals. 

"I would suggest as minister responsible for housing, I would be incredibly negligent in not [speaking] to municipal leaders that are voting on vitally important projects to prevent entrenched encampments in their communities," he said.

"Please, save yourself the resources, the time, the headache, the heartache of an encampment. Save the provincial government time, and let's work together."

Eby said Tuesday he will do everything in his power to compel Penticton to keep the city's shelter open, including using a procedure called paramountcy, which allows the provincial government to circumvent the city's wishes.

Slow progress housing tent city residents

The "entrenched encampments" Eby referred to still remain in B.C.'s largest city and its capital. 

Victoria is now petitioning the B.C. Supreme Court for a long-term ruling on whether Beacon Hill Park can ever be used to house people in temporary structures, even with a self-imposed March 31 deadline to house everyone currently in the park.

In Vancouver, where a homeless camp has moved between three different locations over the past 30 months, it was announced Monday the city had purchased another facility to convert into a shelter, a motel on Kingsway.

However, unlike the facilities announced last week, the motel won't be ready until November, and Coun. Jean Swanson worries that all the additional units won't make up for what's been lost in recent years. 

"A lot of homeless people are coming from [shuttered] SROs ... they're coming from the Regent and the Balmoral, that's about 300 units, but they're also coming because we don't have vacancy controls," she said.

"I just think a lot of this is from senior levels of government. By refusing to fund social housing adequately, by refusing to have adequate welfare rates, the issue of homelessness is basically placed onto the city."

Tap the link below to hear David Eby's interview on Daybreak South:

BC's Housing Minister David Eby says Penticton is facing a "crisis of leadership" on homelessness. 11:51

Tap the link below to hear John Vassilaki's interview on Daybreak South:

Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki speaks to Chris Walker. 13:26

With files from Daybreak South and Brady Strachan

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