A community’s battle to have the city reverse its decision to allow a modular housing project for homeless people in Marpole continued Monday with about 250 people taking to the streets in a protest that got heated at times.
The message from residents who gathered at West 57th and Heather Street was they support more housing and services for homeless people but not at that location, which is within a couple blocks of Sir Wilfred Laurier elementary school, Sir Winston Churchill secondary and Churchill’s Ideal Mini School.
“That makes no sense,” said Aran Cheema, spokesperson for the newly created Right Idea, Wrong Location, who noted in the seven years he’s lived in the neighbourhood that he has not seen any homeless people. “That’s what I’m surprised about.”
Cheema said his organization created an online petition to oppose the 78-unit modular housing project and collected more than 1,200 signatures as of Monday morning. Another 700 people signed a paper petition, he added as sign-carrying protesters took over the four corners of the intersection at West 57th and Heather Street.
The protest, which was fueled by people’s fears of drug-addicted homeless people with mental health challenges, is expected to be one of many as the city continues to announce where the remaining 522 units will be built in the city. Another 10 to 12 sites are anticipated. In September, Premier John Horgan announced $66 million for 600 temporary modular homes to be built for homeless people in Vancouver.
Monday’s protest was held in the morning rush as students were on their way to the schools. Protesters chanted “wrong location” as parents driving through the intersection honked in support. Three people in the crowd made themselves known as supporting the housing, including Churchill parent Amanda Pellerine, who shouted at people to “do what’s right for the homeless!”
“Everybody deserves a home!” she said, before being challenged by a man who shouted back: “Our kids first — kids’ safety first!”
Pellerine, who works at a shelter at the First United Church in the Downtown Eastside, told the man her daughter knew more about homeless people than he did, before she moved on. Further up the street, Rob Baxter stood quietly on the corner with a sign that said, “Another Marpole parent that supports this project. YIMBY.”
“We have a serious homeless problem and things need to happen quickly, and I appreciate the fact the city is making things happen quickly,” said Baxter, noting he once lived near 25th and Fraser when a shelter was proposed for the neighbourhood. “There was huge opposition from the public, they put it in and people hardly know it’s there. There’s a lot fear-mongering happening here.”
Long Tran, who lives three blocks from the housing site, said he received a postcard from the city Oct. 27 that informed him about the modular housing project. Tran said residents should have known about the project well before Mayor Gregor Robertson announced it Oct. 26.
“Is that what democracy is?” said Tran, who shared that he fled Vietnam in the 1970s as a boat person. “We are not against homeless people and, personally, I was one of them — I was a stateless and homeless refugee. I’ve tasted that.”
He echoed Cheema’s concerns about the location of the modular housing and its proximity to schools. Both he and Cheema noted the city’s own data from homeless counts shows more than 50 per cent of people counted have drug addiction issues and mental health problems.
“Ladies and gentlemen, do you think 2,500 students across the street will be safe?” Tran said.
Cheema and others suggested a vacant lot at 49th and Cambie or a spot south on the waterfront would be better locations for the project. Though the protest was held at 57th and Heather, the housing will be built further down the block at West 59th Avenue and Heather. Developer Onni Group owns the site and agreed to have the housing remain for at least five years. Horizon North, which built a modular housing complex at Main and Terminal, is the builder of the housing.
The project will be split into two buildings of 39 units each and be operated by the non-profit Community Builders, whose executive director Julie Roberts said tenants will be a mix of people from shelters and the street.
The tenants will be 45 or older and many will have physical, medical and other disabilities. At least 14 of the units will be wheelchair accessible and staff will be on site around the clock. Roberts acknowledged some tenants will likely have addiction and mental health issues.
“We use a tenant intake process that takes into consideration peoples’ housing history, their mental health issues, their substance abuse issues, their physical issues,” she said. “So, it is in fact possible that people will have at this time or in the past had issues around that.”
Roberts noted priority will be given to homeless people in the area, particularly those fed each week at St. Augustine’s Church on Hudson Street. The church's reverend, Andrew Halladay, estimated there are 30 homeless people who visit the church's meal program. Roberts noted fears residents have about homeless people moving into their neighbourhood are fears she heard when the 48-unit Skeena House opened three years ago on East Hastings, near Cassiar.
“We really haven’t had any significant impact on that neighbourhood that would justify the fears that existed when we started,” Roberts said. “I can’t say it would be the same in this project [in Marpole], but I can say that I’ve experienced hearing these concerns and then working through them, if in fact the project does go ahead.”
Roberts’ comment suggests the project still hasn’t been given the green light. In fact, the city is going through what it calls a development permit process, where residents can weigh in with concerns about the project at three more meetings this week and online.
The project, however, is not considered a rezoning and doesn’t require a public hearing. City council recently passed a bylaw that gives the city’s director of planning, Gil Kelley, the discretion to approve the modular housing projects. But Kelley could also require the project go before the development permit board.
“Anything that’s controversial, I would forward to that board,” Kelley told the Courier in a previous interview in September.
The mayor held a news conference at city hall Monday afternoon to announce that he was "disheartened" by fears being raised protesters about homeless people.
"I'm really disappointed about the misinformation that's being spread," he told reporters. "There's a lot of information that's wrong, inaccurate and fear mongering that's whipping up people in the neighbourhood."
Robertson said it will be difficult to find a site for modular housing in Vancouver that doesn't have a school in close proximity to it.
"That's how the city is planned and laid out," he said, noting nearby transit service is also a consideration for the sites.
Asked about the development permit process and whether the Marpole modular housing project and others to come are a done deal, Robertson replied: "These sites are going to happen."
Abi Bond, the city’s director of affordable housing, said homelessness is an issue across the city and staff is working to find options and services for people in all neighbourhoods. More than 2,100 people in Vancouver were counted as homeless in this year’s homeless count. More than 500 of those were living on the street.
“We need options and choices for those people across the city, not just in the downtown core or the Downtown Eastside,” said Bond, noting over the years the city in partnership with B.C. Housing opened 13 supportive housing sites across Vancouver, including Kitsilano and Dunbar. “While there’s a lot of focus on this site [in Marpole] right now, over the next few weeks we’ll be rolling out a whole series of sites across the city and engaging with communities everywhere.”