Comment: Duncan council failed to lead on shelter for homeless women

Re: “Shelter for women rejected after neighbours protest,” Sept. 27.

I want to clear up some misconceptions created in the article. A subcommittee of the Cowichan Coalition to End Homelessness has been working for two years to provide an overnight winter shelter for homeless women in the Cowichan Valley. The initiative emerged out of two point-in-time counts that found 17 women absolutely homeless and many more precariously housed. It seemed like a minimal and doable response to support this group of vulnerable women.

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The school board (School District 79) was prepared last winter to make available an unused school, as it was this year. B.C. Housing agreed to fund a cold-weather response shelter (only open on particularly miserable nights). Cowichan Women Against Violence Society was asked if we would be the operators of the initiative because of our understanding of and extensive work with traumatized women.

Our first approach to the City of Duncan was for a grant-in-aid to help with the setup costs that B.C. Housing does not cover. At that time, the administration of the city stated that the shelter was a permitted use.

Instead of rejecting the grant request, council, on a motion from Coun. Sharon Jackson, directed the chief administrative officer to change the zoning bylaw to exclude an emergency shelter in any zone in the City of Duncan. We believe this change to the zoning bylaw is counter to the Charter of Rights because it targets and excludes an identifiable group, in this case, homeless women.

The committee investigated the container used in Campbell River that Jackson referenced. It is full of mould, unheated and barely above sleeping outside. In other words, disgusting. It was also prohibitively costly to move.

We also surveyed homeless women in May and June, and nine out of 11 women said they would not stay in a shelter next to the Warmland House mixed-gender shelter.

The change in the zoning bylaw required that we return to Duncan city council under an application for a temporary-use permit for a different school. The provision of the permit is provided for in the City of Duncan official community plan.

Instead of stoking fears and anger, Jackson and council could have approached this issue with leadership and collaboration, demonstrating that we can do good and do right by the community at the same time.

I am disgusted at the unnecessary and mean-spirited nastiness this futile process has encouraged.

Jane Sterk is executive director of the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society.

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