Marathon meetings for Salvation Army plan end in tears — and an approval

Three days of marathon meetings over Salvation Army's controversial plan for a large complex in Vanier came to an emotional end Friday night, as Coun. Mathieu Fleury broke down during his final remarks before the vote that ultimately gave the green light to the project.

Full council will consider the controversial proposal next Wednesday

Dozens of Vanier citizens remained to the bitter end of a three-day meeting over the controversial Salvation Army proposal. They gave the Coun. Mathieu Fleury a standing ovation, even though the committee approved the complex. (CBC News)

Three days of marathon meetings over Salvation Army's controversial plan for a large complex in Vanier came to an emotional end Friday night, as Coun. Mathieu Fleury broke down during his final remarks before the vote that ultimately gave the green light to the project.

Coun. Mathieu Fleury is overcome with emotion when he thanks the Vanier community for coming out to speak this week about their concerns over the Salvation Army proposal. (CBC News)
At the end of Friday's 12-hour meeting, ​Fleury began to thank the multitudes of community members who came to speak to the planning committee these last few days, but he had to stop after being overcome with emotion and, likely, exhaustion.

He waved off the chair's offer to take a break, which led to the audience bursting into applause, even though it was clear by then that the Salvation Army's proposal would be approved.

Fleury soon composed himself, and said with a light, if rueful, laugh: "La politique c'est degueulasse." Politics is disgusting.

The community shared its councillor's feelings. Many in the audience also had tears in their eyes, and seemed almost as exhausted — not just from this week's meetings, but from months of organizing.

Drew Dobson led the community opposition to the Salvation Army's plan. (CBC News)
"The thing is, you put in so much effort, you invest so much time, and you don't get much sleep, so you're emotionally invested," said Drew Dobson, owner of Finnigan's Pub and leader of the groups opposing the complex.

He didn't expect the vote to go his way, but "even though you know it's coming, it's disappointing."

Planning committee approves plan

More than 140 people actually spoke to councillors this week (although more had signed up). Many said they had never spoken in public, let alone given a public deputation in council chambers, including two men who are currently clients of the Salvation Army.

Despite massive community opposition to the project expressed by members of the public over this week, the planning committee approved the plan in a 6-3 vote Friday night. Councillors Jan Harder, Tim Tierney, Allan Hubley, Shad Qadri, Jean Cloutier and Stephen Blais voted for in favour, while councillors Tobi Nussbaum, Jeff Leiper and Riley Brockington voted against. (Fleury did not get a vote because he is not a member of the planning committee.)

The decision must now be approved by full council at next Wednesday's meeting.

More than 150 people protested in front of the Salvation Army's open house last September about a proposed shelter in Vanier. It wasn't the only protest. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Controversial from the start

The Salvation Army's proposal for a 350-bed facility at 333 Montreal Rd. has been controversial from the moment it was announced in June. The complex includes, among other things, a 140-bed emergency shelter, an emergency medical facility and other short-term programs to help homeless men.

There have been some prominent supporters of the Salvation Army's plan, including Dr. Jeff Turnbull and Wendy Muckle of Ottawa Inner City Health, Deidre Freiheit of Shepherds of Good Hope and Peter Tilley of the Ottawa Mission. They attested this week to the fact that the services the Salvation Army offers are needed.

And no one disagrees that Salvation Army's cramped location on George Street must be replaced. The charitable organization has been looking for a new location for seven years, and met Friday's decision with reserved optimism and a promise to do a better job reaching out to the community.

But the vast majority of speakers were against the plan, arguing it would bring too many vulnerable people into an already struggling community. Many also argued that the Salvation Army's programs are a misguided way to help the homeless, that the effort should be on finding — and building — more permanent housing, as opposed to temporary shelter.

Fleury pointed out that the area of the old city of Vanier, where the Salvation Army is moving, is a 2.5-square kilometre community with the lowest per capita income in the city. It's trying to cope with drug dealing, prostitution and crime. It also has more de facto shelters, supportive housing units and social agencies than most areas of the city.

The Salvation Army plan, Fleury told fellow councillors, "deepens the imbalance in my community."

However, under the strict scope of the planning committee, none of those issues matter — or at least they weren't supposed to.

All planning, no social impact

The Salvation Army's proposal requires exemptions to two of the city's planning policies, including the official plan, because shelters are not allowed on main streets such as Montreal Road. .

Many speakers found it impossible to stick to strict planning issues.

I'm ... watching a community that is struggling to find allies, struggling to advocate for their neighbourhood without being seen to be advocating against the most vulnerable.- Coun . Jeff Leiper

A music teacher played the ukulele before telling councillors that she advertised her studio as being closer to tonier Beechwood Avenue than Montreal Road because she feared her Vanier address would scare students away. The owner of Quelque Chose Pâtisserie said nearby residents go his secondary location in Westboro because it's a more pleasant — and perceived as a safer — neighbourhood to shop. 

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper said this week's discussion reminded him of his community's efforts, and his own political activism, almost 20 years ago to try to decrease drug dealing in Hintonburg.

"We were struggling to find allies, and we were struggling to be heard and it took us a very long time to get to that point," he said.

"Now, I'm back in this chair this time, watching a community that is struggling to find allies, struggling to be heard and struggling to advocate for their neighbourhood without being seen to be advocating against the most vulnerable."

Difficult decision

Many — but not all — councillors spoke of the decision as a difficult one.

Coun. Stephen Blais conceded it was a difficult decision, but was moved by the poor state of the Salvation Army's current shelter on George Street. (CBC News)
"There's not a real clear victory tonight," said Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais. "Neither one of the options is particularly appealing. Except for the fact that we do know that hundreds of people will be sleeping on the streets tonight."

Blais was shocked by photos shown during the meeting of the Salvation Army's dark, crowded shelter rooms at its George Street building. He agreed that getting people into permanent housing is a good idea, "but where is that housing?"

However, it was Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Tobi Nussbaum who most clearly laid out an actual planning rationale for his vote.

He didn't buy city staff's arguments that the Salvation Army's proposal deserved an amendment to the official plan.

Coun. Tobi Nussbaum most clearly laid out the planning reasons why he voted against the plan. (CBC News)
In particular, Nussbaum disagreed that, if the Salvation Army's complex goes ahead, Montreal Road would be able to develop into a main street as envisioned by the official plan, which speaks about the commercial nature of main streets — think Bank Street, Elgin Street, Somerset Street or Richmond Road. 

He didn't see enough evidence to "overturn documents that form the heart of our planning approach."

Community likely to appeal

Full council will vote on the file at its meeting next Wednesday, where it will likely be approved.

Council will also deal with a number of motions that were tabled Friday night. One motion stipulated that if the Salvation Army ever wanted more than 140 emergency shelter beds at the new location, it would have to come back to planning committee and council for approval. Another wants to limit the shelter designation at the Montreal Road location to the Salvation Army only — if the organization ever left the property, it could not remain a shelter.

Staff needed time to research whether these proposals were legal.

According to Dobson, the community is almost sure to appeal the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board.

Farther down the road, the community and protective services committee will review the city's housing and homelessness plan in February. There, housing advocates will be able to speak more directly to exactly how we should be trying to end homelessness.

The Liberal government's national housing strategy, expected in the next week, should also shed some light on the types of housing programs likely to receive funding.

An artist's rendering of a proposed new Salvation Army facility on Montreal Road in Vanier. (Salvation Army)