Approximately 150 people came to an open house Wednesday to voice opinions and concerns about the proposed Friendship Lodge on Queensway Street and 17th Avenue.
The Prince George Native Friendship Centre hosted the open house to gather public input on the project, which it has been approved to build and operate on behalf of B.C. Housing.
Native Friendship Centre executive director Barb Ward-Burkitt said there is many misconceptions about what the facility will be.
âItâs not going to be a [homeless] shelter, it is going to be a home for 29 individuals,â Ward-Burkitt said. âWhat an amazing gift to give people in our community. If you donât have a home or anyplace to sleep or anything to eat, how can you stop and concentrate on mental health treatment? I really feel that when people have a place that is their home, they gain that self respect.â
The proposed three-story building will feature 30 one-bedroom apartments with full bathrooms and kitchens â”Â including one for a live-in caretaker. In addition, there will be a multipurpose room with kitchen, lounge and courtyard on the main floor. Five of the units will be wheelchair accessible.
Friendship Lodge will provide rent-controlled housing for people with mental health issues â”Â and subsequent addictions issues â” who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, Ward-Burkitt said. There would be no time limit on how long residents could stay, and rent will likely be based on a percentage of income.
In addition to the caretaker, the facility will have two support staff and access to Native Friendship Centre staff on call during evenings and weekends.
Northern Health has committed $500,000 in operating funds through in-kind access to existing mental health and addictions workers, and new positions, she said.
However, residents wonât be required to be in a treatment plan, Ward-Burkitt said.
âIt is not a program, itâs an apartment. Are we going to tell people what to do? No, I donât think that is respectful. We need to provide that flexibility,â she said. â[But] some of the support services will be offered on site.â
The majority of mental health and addictions services will be offered off site by the Native Friendship Centre and Northern Health.
Ward-Burkitt said there will be guidelines for residents to follow, a service delivery model for treatment and a resident screening and selection process developed with input from a community committee. However, those guidelines havenât been developed yet.
Safety for residents, staff and neighbours will be a key component of the project planning, she added.
Paul Becklake, acute services manager for mental health in Northern Healthâs northern Interior region, said he believes strongly in the model.
âHousing is such a critical piece. We know our folks. If we discharge them in the morning, weâll find them in the emergency room that afternoon because they need a sandwich,â Becklake said. âWe have lots of enthusiasm.â
Becklake said a very high percentage of mental health patients have concurrent drug or alcohol addictions problems, which is why it is critical to treat both together.
Even with the new facility, the demand for housing for the mentally ill will outstrip the supply, he said.
âWe do have a homeless problem in Prince George. Twenty-nine units is not going to fix the problem,â Becklake said. âWe need to make sure the folks who are the most in need … have access to the supports they need.â
Residents of the surrounding Miller and Connaught areas raised questions and concerns about who would be allowed in the facility and what impact it will have on the surrounding area.
George Blanis, a 46-year resident of the area, said when he raised his kids there, it was a beautiful neighbourhood. Now, it is gripped with severe social problems.
âI feel sorry for the people, they have to have a place. [But] please donât try to put something like this there. Donât come to our neighbourhood,â Blanis said. âDoes this have to be in a residential area? Find some other place.â
Home owner Tammy Hall said the area is already besieged by drugs, prostitution and crime already. Hall questioned why vulnerable people with mental illnesses would be placed in the one of the most socially challenged areas of the city.
âIâm afraid to be in my community,â Hall said. âI find it hard to deal with and I have all my marbles. Youâre almost asking for problems.â
In addition, Hall said the current Backpacker Motel site isnât maintained now, which doesnât give residents hope that it will be once the new facility opens.
âWhy donât I feel like Iâm part of the process?â Hall asked. âNo other location was looked at. I feel like itâs a done deal.â
A long-time resident who asked to be named only as Paul, said there isnât enough details about the screening processes to have a meaningful discussion.
âBring us clarity, then we can discuss it,â Paul said. âThere are drug dealers that live next door to this building. I donât know why this site was selected, but I donât think it was any grand thought about helping the homeless.â
The Native Friendship Centre has currently applied to the City of Prince George to rezone the site. The rezoning process is expected to take up to three months before the proposal will be presented to city council.
For more information about the project, go online to www.pgnfc.com.