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Social housing moving next door to elementary school

Cool Aid’s Mount Edwards Court will house adults 55 plus
Victoria Cool Aid Society’s rezoning application to build supportive and affordable housing units at Mount Edwards Court (1002 Vancouver St.) was approved. The building is across the street from Christ Church Cathedral School (Lauren Boothby/VICTORIA NEWS)

Cool Aid’s latest housing project at Mount Edwards Court was given the go-ahead by Victoria’s council after a public hearing Thursday.

More than 40 people signed up to speak in opposition and support of the controversial rezoning application to convert the former seniors home into 78 supportive housing and 15 affordable rental housing units for adults 55 and older. Cool Aid has been operating 1002 Vancouver St. — located across from Christ Church Cathedral School — since February 2016 as a transitional housing for 38 people, many of whom were previously homeless. Parents and school representatives voiced opposition to the application, while other neighbours, and a current Mount Edwards Court resident, showed support.

Kathy Stinson, CEO of Victoria Cool Aid Society, presented the plan and attempted to alleviate concerns. Cool Aid and B.C. Housing, she said, had regular meetings with neighbours and community February to May 2016 before their attention shifted to Tent City, which was located a few blocks away. After Tent City shut down in August 2016, she said, incidents in the neighbourhood have declined.

Incoming residents, according to Stinson, will be 55 or older with low to moderate support needs. There will be at least three staff on site 24/7, and the building will have a controlled entry. Potential tenants will be screened using the Vulnerability Assessment Tool, and only those with no known history of violence and no current substance abuse issues will be housed at that location. The Residential Tenancy Act prohibits landlords from requiring a criminal record check.

“We’ve heard that with this new set up we will be pushing drug use out into the community,” Stinson said in her presentation at the meeting. “But again, I reiterate, that we will be screening folks to ensure people are not coming into the building with problematic substance abuse issues.

“I’ve heard from many people in this room that they support the idea of housing the homeless, they just don’t think they should be housed in residential neighbourhoods. But the purpose of residential neighbourhoods is to house people, and individuals experiencing homelessness are just people.”

School and parents concerned

Many neighbours, parents and representatives of the school, were not convinced. Stuart Hall spoke at the public hearing representing the school board. He said their focus has always been on the safety of the children, and they are not satisfied with Cool Aid’s plans for the facility. Density and a “low level of accountability” of the operators, he said, were the board’s chief concerns.

Samantha Stone, whose children attend Christ Church Cathedral School across the street, was also worried.

“Poverty is the true concern of this city. Addiction, even monitored, is another,” she said. “As a parent, I’m wondering when safety for children, for seniors, and for neighbours will also register.”

Mike Geoghegan, a government and media consultant who ran in August’s Saanich Council elections, said having the supportive housing just across the street from the school was too dangerous a risk for children.

“We wouldn’t put a marijuana dispensary next to a school,” he said. “Here you have, a stone’s throw away, a shelter, transitional housing going in…We already have issues of people shooting up drugs with street-level prostitution occurring in the area.

“This is inherently risky. I believe it is criminally irresponsible to put housing like this near a school.”

Homeless advocate and building resident show support

But other attendees at the meeting supported Cool Aid’s rezoning application. Alison Acker, 89, who lives in James Bay and is on the Committee to End Homelessness Victoria, said she supported the project, and that it seemed like a good home and community for the seniors to live in.

“I feel very badly when others are afraid of poor people or the homeless. I don’t know what’s happened to them in their past or why they should fear them or their presence,” she said. “I don’t want there to be gated communities. I don’t want it to be the rich here, and the poor there, on the street.

“I don’t think children should grow up thinking the world is a pretty, nice place for everybody. It’s not…if they never see a poor person on the street, it’s going to be very difficult for them in the future.”

Leigh Anderson, currently a tenant of Mount Edwards Court, advocated on behalf of herself and other tenants.

“I am proud to live at 1002 Vancouver,” she said. “This is a well-run building. It is kept extremely clean.”

Anderson said many of the tenants that were causing problems are now gone.

“That type of behaviour is not allowed. In terms of noise, there are times I would call that building as quiet as an undiscovered tomb,” she said. “Mount Edwards is our home…We have regular meetings of the tenants where we are listened to and where action is taken.

“We’re our own best watchdogs.”

Council approves rezoning

Council passed the application, with Coun. Geoff Young opposed. Coun. Charlayne Thornton Joe said she heard and acknowledged the community’s misgivings but gave her support to the project.

“People have expressed fear for their children, and I respect that,” she said. “This council has said our goal is to solve the issue of homelessness. One of the [steps in] solving the issue of homelessness is providing homes, and this is an opportunity that’s been placed before us.”

Thornton Joe said the application is not for a shelter or transitional housing, but for supportive and affordable housing. Equating Mount Edwards Court to a shelter is not an accurate comparison, she said, however operators need to be held accountable should issues arise.

“As council, we need to stand up when there are concerns. We need to put the fire under Cool Aid, B.C. Housing and Island Health if there are concerns, and we need to make sure we have policing,” she said.

Mount Edwards Court previously operated as a seniors care home with 83 units. The first and second floors will be renovated to include 78 supportive housing units with shared kitchen and shower facilities. The third floor, which has not been occupied for nearly 40 years, will be renovated before the 15 new affordable rental apartments are built.

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The tenant of this small Mount Edwards Court unit keeps his room tidy. The resident has a private bedroom and bathroom with a sink and toilet, but shares showers and a kitchen with other tenants on the floor. (Lauren Boothby/VICTORIA NEWS)
Mount Edwards Court residents use the interior courtyard for barbecues, repair and gardening projects, and to store bicycles and other items. (Lauren Boothby/VICTORIA NEWS)