A whisper has grown into a shout this week as one of Grand Fork’s premier social service centres pushed back against its municipal government.
This week Whispers of Hope Benevolence Society — and Boundary Emergency and Transitional Housing Society — said no to a decree by the City of Grand Forks to stop operations in the city-owned building, delivered Aug. 2.
On Tuesday Whispers of Hope said it would not stop operating, and that there was “no legal reason to terminate” the lease. Late last week around 60 supporters of Whispers Of Hope turned out to rally around the north steps of City Hall and hammer home the unreasonable nature of the eviction request.
In its latest response, the city has repealed the 48-hour eviction notice and said Whispers must straighten out its operation or face eviction — noting they have six months to find a new home even if they do conform.
Whispers officials were unavailable for comment on whether they would comply with the city’s new request, adhere to the six-month time frame, or challenge the city on the lease agreement.
The city contends that the eviction notice was prompted by “dozens” of complaints from the public and “thousands of dollars spent by the city in repairing vandalism in areas around the building.”
Some people expressed not feeling safe using the trail and the park near the building.
“The soup kitchen’s clients are often camped out on the community trail that runs along the Granby River or on lands adjacent to the trail,” read a release from the city.
City council’s rationale for requesting the eviction notice was that closing the premise would reduce the “concentration of damage to public property, conflict and concerns about public safety.”
That original notice sparked a debate within the community and the social service societies about the services provided and the general issue of homelessness, addictions and mental health in Grand Forks.
“The city’s goal is to reduce behaviour that presents a risk to public safety,” read a city release issued on Aug. 8.
The risks include interpersonal conflicts (yelling matches or fighting), improper disposal of needles or drug paraphernalia and damage to property or vandalism.
Although no specific action arose out of the July 17 city council committee-of-the-whole meeting, the topic of homelessness was a theme for the meeting. Council discussed the risk of wildfires or other damage caused by homeless people building and occupying temporary shelters.
The shelters are prohibited within city limits and have been repeatedly cleared by city staff after they have been in place for several weeks.
There are currently at least 10 transient camps scattered along the river front in Grand Forks — and many of them lighting fires at night during a province-wide campfire ban — creating a bigger issue than mere homelessness.
Grand Forks fire chief Dale Heriot said it was not a simple case of securing adequate shelter for the homeless people.
“There is also a mental health issue at work here but something needs to be done, or we are going to have another Cariboo. We are going to have another Cariboo. It’s not a matter of if, it’s just when. It’s just a matter of time,” he warned.
The rate of spread for a fire in the Grand Forks area right now is four times faster than any other area in the Southeast Fire Centre, he said, quoting a provincial figure.
In the same building as Whispers, BETHS isn’t even open for the season since they are a cold weather shelter for homeless people. Even so, they will also have to find a new place to set up in fall and then outfit the facility as a proper shelter.
City council has also cancelled the upcoming committee-of-the-whole meeting (Aug. 21), a municipal meeting in which people are allowed to speak to city elected officials.