Project to replace existing building moves one step forward after city endorsed project on Monday
Julia Caranci, Alberni Valley Times
Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2012
The city of Port Alberni has taken a crucial step to advance a proposed new shelter and transitional housing residence on Vancouver Island Health Authority-owned property across the street from the current shelter on Eighth Avenue. However, council's approval was couched in cautionary terms pending support from area residents.
Local officials agree the existing homeless shelter site on Eighth Avenue is no longer adequate to meet the needs of the city's homeless. A 2008 study concluded building a new homeless shelter to help residents was a "top priority" in the Alberni Valley. Thus far funding for the project totals $95,000, a grant from the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District for early design work and an environmental assessment. The entire project will cost $8 million or more, and will likely take several years to come to fruition.
At Monday evening's city council meeting, councillors voted to re-affirm their support for the project at VIHA's request. Health authority officials wanted the new mayor and council's support before moving ahead with the project. "I'm glad we are doing this in principal," Coun. Cindy Solda said. "But I hope they plan to contact the neighbourhood. They need to do some fast PR work." Coun. Hira Chopra agreed community consultation is a must, but added, "I think we do need the shelter."
Alberni Shelter Society administrator Wes Hewitt is pleased council has acknowledged the importance of this project. "We keep moving a step ahead," he said. He envisions the new shelter as a 50-bed facility offering both emergency beds and transitional housing.
Hewitt has known for some time the current site, which boasts 42 shelter beds in an aging building, is inadequate. "We're getting so cramped for space we have no where we can work with clients," he said. "There is a huge demonstrated need in the community for a new facility, and it will only get worse." He added this is a community health issue, saying Uptown revitalization starts with helping marginalized residents facing poverty, addictions and/or mental health issues integrate back into mainstream society.
A similar shelter constructed in Duncan two years ago cost $8.4 million, and Hewitt anticipates Port Alberni's new shelter would cost that much or more. If the project is approved, B.C. Housing will organize the funding, which would come from the society, federal and provincial governments and grants from other private sector groups.
Hewitt has retained an architect to begin some preliminary design work, but that will have to wait until VIHA official approves use of the land for the project. Being "somewhat realistic" in terms of how long it will take to break ground, he said best case scenario would be one year, but more than likely it will take "another year or two." Hewitt hopes the public will support the project, noting it will be located close to the current shelter site. "We're nothing new in this neighbourhood," he said.
In a letter to council, VIHA officials state, "If the city of Port Alberni remains committed to this proposal, VIHA will release a Notice of Intent to ensure there are no other community groups interested in using this land for similar purposes." Depending on the results of that process, the health authority will advance discussions with the society. There are no firm plans regarding what will happen to the existing shelter site.