Homeless camp creating controversy

High Road Services executive director Dana Gorbahn has taken the group’s 16th Ave. property off the table as a location for a homeless camp.

High Road Services Society executive director Dana Gorbahn has taken the group’s 16th Ave. property off the table as a possible location for a temporary homeless camp this winter.

The 16th Ave. location had never been officially approved, only brought up as a potential location for the temporary shelters. Other possibilities that have been mentioned by the town include Riverside Park campground and Heritage Park, across from Town Hall.

Although no location has been chosen, residents of the 16th Ave. area had a meeting last week to air their displeasure with the idea of having a temporary homeless camp set up in their neighbourhood. None of the stakeholders actually involved in planning the project were asked to attend.

Gorbahn did go the meeting, uninvited, and explained to concerned residents the location was mentioned at an initial meeting only as a possible solution because High Road Services owns the land.

More than 50 people attended the meeting, Gorbahn estimated.

Since the initial Sept. 3 meeting where the suggestion was made, it has become clear, for a number of reasons, Gorbahn said, this area of town is not best suited for a temporary camp.

“I’m willing to put it down in writing,” Gorbahn said.

“Sixteenth Ave., as an idea, was something to discuss, but it needed further exploration to make sure all parties would be happy. It’s good they raised their concerns because now we know where people are at.”

Gorbahn said he is attending a meeting with BC Housing and the Town of Smithers Oct. 16 to discuss the next steps in the project.

Late in September, High Road Services Society’s board approved the purchase of two to four camp-like structures that could house up to 12 homeless people.

The buildings would then be converted and moved to be used in one of High Road’s other projects.

“We’re looking at being able to provide this service over the wintertime and then move it to one of our other locations to become a permanent residence for our individuals,” he said.

“We just need to get the approval from the town on where and how we’re going to do this.”

High Road Services Society is currently working with the Smithers Action Group Association on how best to monitor and support the temporary camp.

At the initial meeting, Joan LeClair with SAGA estimated the Smithers homeless population to be at between 50 and 100 and said she knows of three people who died last year due to the effects of sleeping outdoors.

“This has to happen now,” she said. “This is an emergency. People need to have shelter.”

The two groups — High Road Services Society and SAGA — are both working on supportive housing projects that would alleviate some of the pressure but those projects are years away from completion.