People out in the cold in Grand Forks were suddenly offered a place to keep warm on Sunday evening, after a group of volunteers got together to open up a shelter space at 7500 Donaldson Dr., the same location that hosted a warming centre in Grand Forks last year.
The space opened as temperatures dipped below -15 C on Sunday night as winds whipped through the valley, the coldest Grand Forks has been this winter. According to Grand Forks mayor Brian Taylor, the building’s owner opened up the space to the group to use as a shelter. As of Monday afternoon, the impromptu shelter was being staffed by volunteers (including the mayor, who worked the previous night’s shift) and was open through the day.
Taylor said that four people used the space on Sunday night, two of whom he said were “in bad condition” when they arrived.
Neighbours were taken by surprise with the opening of the shelter, spurring concerns from critics of its establishment about transparency in the decision to open the facility. Last winter, a warming centre was quickly set-up at the location by a collection of social services and drew criticism from those who were wary of the impacts a shelter would have on the neighbours around the Donaldson Drive location.
On Monday morning at a committee of the whole meeting, councillors fielded questions that prodded the decision to open the shelter, but while council did have a discussion about the shelter during an in-camera meeting on Sunday, acting mayor Neil Krog said that he and his colleagues did not formally approve the opening of the shelter for Sunday evening.
“It is regrettable that the facility opened last night without that consent,” Krog said. Council voted last July to enforce the zoning bylaw covering the building, which does not allow for more than one person to sleep at the location overnight. That enforcement led to the shelter’s closing in August.
Nevertheless, an operator for an emergency shelter, Boundary Family Services Society (BFSS), has stepped forward to run a facility in Grand Forks until spring. “My board was very clear: we will not participate beyond Mar. 31,” confirmed Darren Pratt, the non-profit’s executive director at the committee of the whole.
As of Jan. 14, BFSS was still not involved in current operations at 7500 Donaldson Dr. Rather, council resolved Monday night that they would wait to see what rules and regulations BFSS would operate the shelter under before giving formal approval. Councillors resolved to hold another public meeting at 7 p.m. on Jan. 15 to discuss the rules of operation.
At the committee of the whole, Coun. Rod Zielinski expressed discomfort with permitting a shelter to operate on Donaldson Dr. “I believe it’s very imperative that we follow our bylaws and that we enforce our bylaws,” said the councillor who initiated the bylaw enforcement in July. “If council does not follow their own bylaws, I don’t know what kind of society we have.”
While Coun. Christine Thompson agreed, she noted that the extreme cold felt this week constituted “an emergent situation,” adding that “the proposed provider is an acceptable provider that would operate a facility with rules and regulations.”
Addressing councillors’ concerns about breaching city bylaws, Grand Forks interim CAO Ron Mattiussi noted that from a provider’s perspective, 7500 Donaldson Dr. “was the site but they could literally turn the key on, turn on the heat and get some people out of the cold.
“My recommendation at this point is to see if you can make this work,” Mattiussi told councillors, “at least in the short term to get them off the street. […] There’s greater risk to the community, having people trying to find their own emergency shelter wherever they can do it than necessarily having a provider that we trust and being able to try to take a crack at this.”
Speaking in favour of using the Donaldson Drive location as a winter shelter this year, Coun. Chris Moslin said that he could, “in good conscience, suspend the enforcement of the bylaw until the end of March 2020 in order to provide humanitarian relief to those in the cold,” adding that he would endorse BFSS as the provider.
By the end of Monday’s meeting, council had discussed but had not yet approved waiving enforcement of the zoning bylaw governing the number of people permitted to stay overnight at the location, waiting instead to see proposed rules from BFSS.
Meanwhile, as of Jan. 14, a group of volunteers was staffing the building at 7500 Donaldson Dr. to offer a round-the-clock shelter option, as the temperature moved between -10 C and -20 C.