White Rock council this week stopped short of approving use of the White Rock Community Centre as a temporary shelter for the homeless. (File photo)

White Rock council mulls help for homeless

Meal program approved, temporary shelter needs further investigation

White Rock council has authorized the use of part of an uptown parking lot for a midday meal program for homeless people on the Semiahmoo Peninsula.

But at its special meeting Tuesday (April 14), council stopped short of approving use of the White Rock Community Centre as a temporary shelter for the homeless – recommending instead that staff consult with local faith-based groups, Fraser Health and B.C. Housing about finding a suitable location for either a temporary or long-term shelter.

An easier sell was establishing an area for distribution of meals – at the northern end of the parking lot at Johnston Road and Russell Avenue – through a program established by local faith-based groups and service clubs, planned to begin on Wednesday, April 22, at noon.

Council received assurances from recreation and culture director Eric Stepura that the city would provide traffic cones and volunteers would establish social-distancing lines to discourage congregation of recipients and minimize the spread of the COVID-19 virus, while meals would be taken away to be eaten elsewhere.

The program received unanimous approval from council, as did a subsequent motion to investigate finding space in the community to create a shelter for the homeless.

Peninsula United Church council chair Jean Macdonald and justice and service convenor Kathy Booth had written to council requesting it consider using the community centre until June 30, since the Star of the Sea Parish hall, which has provided a cold-weather shelter for the past two winters, is now closed due to the pandemic.

READ MORE: As temperature dips, numbers rise at White Rock extreme-weather shelter

Macdonald and Booth wrote that, although the weather is improving, the pandemic poses “unique problems for the homeless members of our community” who don’t have the ability to self-isolate or quarantine, increasing the risk of infection both for them and the community as a whole.

Using the community centre, where activities have been suspended, would enable safe physical distancing, they suggested, adding that they didn’t anticipate more than 10-16 guests, who would arrive at 8:30 p.m. and vacate the facility by 7 a.m.

But council heard from Stepura that staff does not support the use of the community centre as a shelter.

He said the facility already supports the community as an emergency support services reception centre whenever emergencies occur, such as a recent incident in which residents were displaced by an apartment fire.

READ MORE: Person found dead after apartment fire in White Rock

He also noted that it’s located in a high-density residential area and surrounded by businesses, adding “it’s strongly advisable that these residents and businesses be consulted before giving approval to a shelter.”

Stepura said the facility is also subject to facility user fees – an estimated $1,700 per day for the hours requested – and is also still being used by some staff. To prevent the spread of the virus, he suggested, the building would have to be thoroughly cleaned before staff members came to work.

The shelter would also be operating on a seven-days-a-week basis, requiring showers and washroom facilities, he said.

Chief administrative officer Dan Bottrill echoed comments from fire Chief Phil Lemire that B.C. Housing has already taken the lead in establishing and locating spaces for such needs.

“B.C. Housing should be the lead here in terms of figuring out where this space should be,” Bottrill said.

Coun. Anthony Manning said it was evident that a long-term solution was necessary.

“This debate speaks to a need for a 24/7, 365 (day) transitional shelter on one side of 16 Avenue or another – it doesn’t really matter whether it’s in White Rock or South Surrey,” he said. “The need is there.”

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