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Zoning changes could see social service centres in more Victoria neighbourhoods

Services such as shelters could be permitted anywhere in the city as long as they meet certain conditions, including ensuring the operation does not negatively affect the neighbouring community
Jack Phillips of SOLID Outreach Society in front of a building at 2155 Dowler Pl. that will be used to help connect people living on the street with housing. North Park residents rallied at Victoria City Hall this week, criticizing the city for fast-tracking the facility without any public consultation, and pointing out the site is steps from a school and an area where children play. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Temporary social services centres could be permitted anywhere in Victoria as long as they meet certain conditions, under zoning amendments endorsed by council.

Those conditions include capping the number of shelter spaces at 50, ensuring the service is more than 100 metres from other social-services centres, maintaining the ­property and ensuring the operation does not negatively affect the neighbouring ­community.

The move was initiated by Mayor ­Marianne Alto, who said there are no sites currently under consideration for such a centre, and finding one that meets all criteria will be challenging.

“I think it’s important to point out that before any of this could happen, all four of these particular requirements would have to be met. In a sense, the likelihood of this ­happening is extremely low.”

Alto said in an ideal world, the city wouldn’t have to be doing the work of senior levels of government. “Yes, it shouldn’t be our job. Yet I want to say who better to know our residents than their most local government?

“We must do something. We can’t wait any longer. They can’t wait any longer. And they’re not them. They’re us.”

Alto later said in an interview that there has been some misunderstanding in the ­community about the idea of spreading out social services. “I do understand the ­impression that ­people have is that all of a sudden there’s going to be some kind of a social service set up in every community.”

Alto stressed that not only would new centres be temporary but the zoning amendments are only intended to give council the chance to jump on any opportunity that may come up.

She noted that the city’s Official Community Plan calls for equity in the distribution of social services throughout the city.

Part of the motion is to have city staff explore the appropriate regulation for social-service centres in Victoria as part of renewal of the Official Community Plan, the mayor said.

Coun. Jeremy Caradonna said he understands the consternation expressed by some members of the public, but stressed that it’s an interim measure.

“It’s not meant to create a whole bunch more shelters across the city. It’s meant to enable us to act quickly if that rare opportunity arises,” he said. “We’re in a situation where we’re under tremendous pressure from the public, and rightly so, to get on top of the situation in the parks and on our streets.”

A group of North Park residents protested at city hall on Thursday over the city’s role in establishing a facility at 2155 Dowler Pl. to help connect people living on the street with housing.

The city spent $300,000 to help SOLID Outreach Society buy the property just north of Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, and contributed up to $1.8 million in operating funding for one year to SOLID, which will own and run the facility.

Staff will help connect people to B.C. Housing options and market rental subsidies, as well as drug-treatment programs, and will accompany people to health appointments.

The space, which will offer food, will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and fit about 50 people at a time. The property will be fenced and security will be provided by SOLID.

The North Park residents criticized the city for fast-tracking the facility without public consultation, pointing out the site is steps from a school and an area where children play.

“We are extremely disappointed that council chose to forgo any consultation with our neighbourhood,” said North Park resident Josh Montgomery. “Under the city’s own policy this site would not meet approval for a cannabis shop because the building is well within 200 metres of a school.”

Two city councillors voted against Alto’s social-services motion on Thursday.

Stephen Hammond said he appreciated the difficult criteria the mayor set to allow a new social-services centre, but he couldn’t support it if the public did not have a voice.

Marg Gardiner said as compassionate as Victoria residents may be, some of them have been pushed too far by homeless encampments in parks and on the streets.

Gardiner said the Dowler Place project ought to be used as a test case before a system is set up to allow more to open in other areas of the city.

“While the motion suggests that the risks are acceptable, those residents and businesses which will bear the risk may not agree with that statement,” she said. “I get that people need help turning their lives around, but it seems like the concerns of taxpayers who have to bear the brunt of willful damage, verbal and physical abuse, added costs to protect themselves and their property in Victoria has been tossed to the wayside.”

Gardiner suggested those councillors who supported the motion should be the first to locate one of the centres on their block, as a gesture of good faith.

In voting for the motion, Coun. Dave Thompson said policy changes should be viewed against the status quo, “and the status quo is a disaster.”

“This motion provides an opportunity for improvement over the status quo.”

Coun Krista Loughton agreed. “We need to create spaces so that we can continue our work to prohibit sheltering in the parks and to find spaces for people who are sheltering on the streets and boulevards.”

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