The old Emily Carr library branch at 3500 Blanshard St. has been vacant since December 2013, leaving Saanich with a $24,000 annual bill to cover operating costs. Saanich now plans to spend renovate the building. (Black Press File).

Housing advocate questions municipality’s proposed renovation of former Emily Carr library

Marilou Gagnon says Saanich was never serious about helping the Regina Park homeless

An advocate for homeless says Saanich’s decision to use the former Emily Carr library for its own staff appears consistent with Saanich’s actions.

Marilou Gagnon, a registered nurse and an associate professor in UVic’s School of Nursing, who is also president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, made that observation, when asked about Saanich’s plan to renovate the empty building for its own use.

A report recommends Saanich spend $2.1 million for upgrades to the building in the 3500 block of Blanshard Street, as well as municipal hall and its annex.

RELATED: Saanich plans to turn former Emily Carr library into office space

The recommendation marks a turning point in the history of the building, because it confirms and consolidates the presence of municipal staff in the building, eliminating — at least for now — other options for its use.

“The idea of using it for people who are homeless was raised at some point but I don’t think ever seriously considered,” said Gagnon in reference to plans from former mayor Richard Atwell, who had proposed turning the building into temporary housing for residents of the tent city that had sprung up in nearby Regina Park.

The proposal surprised staff and council in failing to get support. But it remained a source of controversy during the municipal election campaign that eventually ended in the election of current Mayor Fred Haynes, who opposed Atwell’s idea, after he was initially prepared to vote in favour of researching it.

RELATED: Saanich mayor pitches former Emily Carr library as housing site

This June 21 vote happened three days after Saanich informed the public that it would look into using the building for additional office space following a facilities review.

The homeless population remained in Regina Park until the middle of September, after which its remaining residents moved around the region, following a court decision in favour of Saanich and the provincial government.

“It is pretty obvious Saanich had no plans to help homeless people,” said Gagnon. “They took them to [B.C. Supreme Court] and chased them around until the point of exhaustion. People who were at tent city have been back on the street for a while now. This decision seems to be aligned with the rest of the decisions made by Saanich so far.”

Earlier this fall, Saanich offered land to the province in exchange for supportive housing, but the provincial government rejected the land after an assessment deemed it unsuitable.

RELATED: Province says Saanich-owned land unsuitable for supportive housing

“I still think that the former Emily Carr library is what council should put forth in good faith if we truly want to move forward with modular housing,” Atwell said on Oct. 10.

An official with the ministry of municipal affairs and housing speaking on background said the ministry and the municipality considered “multiple locations” while neither confirming nor denying that the former library was among them.

Since those discussions happened during in-camera meetings closed to the public, BC Housing could not reveal those locations, the official said, adding that BC Housing looks forward to discussing potential supportive housing locations with the new mayor and council.

Megan Catalano, a Saanich spokesperson, said Saanich previously offered access to land at the Municipal Hall campus for modular supportive housing units. “We continue to work with the provincial government to find land on which supportive modular housing can be built,” she said.


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