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Shelters need a 'reasonable' break on codes to keep operating: Nanaimo council

Emergency shelters are often run by non-profit organizations that don’t have the money for costly renovations

The province’s building safety standards branch needs to develop “reasonable variances” for building and fire codes that will permit emergency shelters to remain open, says Nanaimo council.

Many people in the city, with an estimated homeless population of 800, rely on shelters and warming centres, particularly in recent weeks during freezing temperatures and snow.

The city has been wrestling with how to enforce building- and fire-code safety standards for shelters, which are often run by non-profit organizations that don’t have the money for costly renovations.

Council members voted this week in favour of a motion to ask the province for variances to building and fire codes for shelters. The proposal will go to the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities annual general meeting in April. If passed, it would be considered at the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual meeting this year.

A city staff report says shelters often operate from buildings that don’t meet occupancy requirements under building or fire codes and that are not zoned for that use, which puts local governments at risk of liability if they don’t enforce the codes. If they do enforce the code, however, there’s a risk the shelters will have to shut down.

In November, Nanaimo council voted not to enforce the building and fire codes, building regulation and associated bylaws at shelters as long as the operator is carrying out “reasonable efforts to satisfy the codes.”

Shelters operators were also directed to seek funds from B.C. Housing for upgrades.

Coun. Paul Manly, executive director of a shelter that has been run by the First Unitarian Fellowship in Nanaimo for nearly 16 years, said there is no designation in provincial legislation for emergency shelters. The Unitarian site is zoned for assembly use and is in need of major renovations.

Emergency shelters do not fall under residential-tenancy designation because they are not a home, he said.

The Unitarian Fellowship was the first church in Nanaimo to operate an emergency severe-weather shelter when it opened in winter 2008 on a temporary basis. The shelter has 25 beds plus two more for emergency use.

Its board voted unanimously on Sunday in favour of the Nanaimo Family Life Association taking over the shelter under a five-year lease. The association has run a winter shelter out of another church for three years.

The transition is expected to be completed by the end of June.

As part of the change, the association will take over ­management of the free shower program in Caledonia Park from the Unitarian Fellowship, which has operated it with city support for several years.

Fellowship board chair Don Gayton said it had become “increasingly clear” that the burden of operating the shelter was unsustainable for the board and other congregational volunteers. “A small congregation such as ours does not have a large enough pool of board members to oversee an increasingly complex operation,” Gayton said, adding it has also become more difficult to raise funds.

The Nanaimo Unitarian ­Fellowship has 65 to 70 active members.

Government agencies and many foundations and granting agencies have stopped providing money to faith-based organizations, Gayton said.

The association has a similar operating philosophy to the Fellowship when it comes to “respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” he said.

The 2,500-square-foot shelter will remain in the 1946 building on Townsite Road, which is owned by the Unitarian Fellowship.

A fundraising campaign has been launched to carry out improvements, which could cost $160,000 or more, although the scope of the project is still being determined, Manly said.

Planned renovations include drywalling, rewiring, ­plumbing and flooring. Work is expected to start in the spring.

Deborah Hollins, the association’s executive director, will also serve as the shelter’s ­executive director, replacing Manly.

Unitarians have done an exceptional job of running the shelter and the association “will be doing everything we can to learn from their expertise,” Hollins said. “What I’d like to see in Nanaimo is adequate accessible housing for everybody.”

Manly welcomes the change­over, saying that as the shelter’s executive director, he has recused himself from certain decisions and discussions at council, which has been frustrating. Once the transfer takes place, he will be able to take part in those discussions, he said.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com