Motion Sickness: How One Request for Info Pitted a Neighbourhood Against City Hall

Somewhere in William Winegard Public School, someone was rhythmically beating a drum. The slow tap of that drum was always there in the background, and it did nothing for the mood on the second floor, where, in the library, Ward 1 Councillor Dan Gibson was walking a fine line between outrage and need.

It’s Thursday November 14, and just nine days earlier at Committee of the Whole, Gibson was the lone no vote on a motion to investigate 106 Beaumont Cres in the city’s east end as the potential site for 10 container homes to act as harm reduction housing.

“There was no notification, no public awareness on the issue at all,” said Gibson about the vote on Open Sources Guelph last week. “Emotions were running high that evening following the vote, and I knew that people would be waking up the next day, wondering what happened and where this came from.”

A group called “Guelph Community against Shipping containers in our neighbourhood” was started on Facebook, and Gibson called a meeting at the Winegard School so that the community could express their concerns. The motion will have to be voted on again at Monday’s council meeting, but the signs are already there that council may be ready to look at a different initiative that doesn’t put all its chips on Beaumont Ave.

The Motion

To see where this began, you have to go back to the special meeting of council on October 21. You might have missed it because it was Election Night, but this meeting was called so that council could look at the creation of a City Operations campus, part of which was a review of under-performing real estate assets. One of those assets is 106 Beaumont Ave.

106 Beaumont is a one acre piece of land split into 10 residential plots. The City bought it in the 1970s for the future realignment of Cityview Dr, which is one of those projects that never seemed to come to pass. Antti Vilkko, General Manager of Facilities Management, reported to council that staff is currently in the process of coming up with a land use plan for 106 Beaumont, and that report is supposed to come back to council sometime next year.

Then Councillor Rodrigo Goller had an idea.

Goller made a motion to direct staff to look at using 106 Beaumont Cres as a site for harm reduction housing, and to report back by November’s Committee of the Whole meeting. After a discussion about the logistical requirements, and the difficulty in consulting various partner agencies on such short notice, the motion was pulled, but Goller put it back on the floor at Committee on November 4.

That staff be directed to investigate options and required needs for Harm Reduction Housing on 106 Beaumont and report back by January, 2020.

Gibson repeated the same criticism he made at the October 21 meeting saying that the City needed to take a holistic approach because looking at one specific site, even if the motion is just a request for information, might send a message that the deal was a fait accompli. Gibson also made the point that the City has its processes for all site development projects no matter the land use.

“We have decision-making processes that give due process to the public, and I felt like this had gained so much steam and so much momentum in one meeting without ever being able to consult my constituents,” Gibson said. “I am a process-oriented decision-maker and I think that the public deserves that as well.”

The Reaction

Nine days later in the Winegard library between 50 and 60 people were in the room. Sometimes there was respectful attention as Gibson addressed the room, or when he was backed up by Ward 3 Councillor Phil Allt or Mayor Cam Guthrie, who were both also in attendance.

But there was also friction. Between questions about process, and some reasonably interesting alternative suggestions, there was some conflict.

A small group of people concerned about the perception of the people harm reduction housing would help took exception to the negative reaction of the area. One young woman said she would be happy to have a development like the one proposed in her backyard. A man asked if she owned a piece of property in the west end where she lived, and when she said she was a renter, there were more than a few groans in the room.

Most people at the library that night though were careful to not phrase their concerns as a matter of NIMBYism, or ‘Not In My Back Yard.’

“I feel like the legitimate concern here is that that land is not safe, and not that it’s going to depreciate people’s property value,” said one man. “No matter where it is in Guelph, it’s going to be in someone’s backyard.”

“I’ve been accused of NIMBYism before, on this file as well, but I’ll say that the constituents weren’t even given the opportunity to become NIMBYs because this was being moved so quickly,” Gibson said on Open Sources.

Online the tone is a little more negative. A Change.org petition was started as a protest of the decision, and while it makes the point that Beaumont Cres is far from common amenities downtown when you’re primary means of getting around is your own two feet, it also has a distinctly NIMBY turn or phrase.

“As a mother of 3 young children with one child on the spectrum, I fear for their safety and to allow them to go outside to play with the friends,” wrote Rebecca Marshall on the petition. “Please sign this petition and help spread the word. For the well being of many young children, we ask for your help!!”

Leah Pharoah, who’s the admin of the Facebook page mentioned above, submitted a video for her presentation at Monday’s meeting that features images of kids playing in an open field set over Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, which is more commonly known as the “Funeral March.”

“Quite frankly, and I said this to many counselors, we should have expected that response the way we brought the decision forward,” Gibson said. “We’re inviting that kind of knee jerk response from the public.”

Gibson added that the reason why he didn’t formally invite the media to the town hall was to give residents a way to vent, even if their comments were misunderstood, or not fully realized in the moment. Area residents, for the most part, were hyper aware of the issues with homelessness, especially with the “tent cities” that have popped up in the areas around York Rd, as well as property crimes in the area.

One local businessman on York Rd said that he knows that people stealing from him aren’t necessarily homeless people, but he also knows that there are criminals who are more than willing to let homeless people take the fall, and the blame.

What Happens Next?

The process is that a motion made at Committee at the beginning of the month, has to be ratified at the regular council meeting at the end of the month. The word “process” is key because at least one councillor saw the vote as a way to to start a discussion.

“My concern is to investigate options, and that’s why I said ‘yes,'” said Allt at the meeting. “I am skeptical, extremely skeptical, of this site because when I do a checklist, there are a number of issues that work against it. It only came up because it was surplus land.”

“I do believe that the councillors that brought this forward we’re very impulsive because they had the good of the community in mind,” Allt added. “We went through the back door on this, but my intent was never ever to put the that particular housing project there.”

Earlier that day on his blog, Mayor Guthrie outlined  a motion he hoped to see brought to the floor for a vote at Monday’s meeting. The motion will direct staff to investigate “city wide properties,” seek input on capacity and resourcing with outside agencies, and that staff report back to council by the second quarter of 2020.

“There are times many times when a councillor, or even myself, will state something at Committee because that’s where the debate and the ideas percolate, and it’s completely changed because of either councillor, mayoral or citizen input,” Guthrie said.

“But there is definitely will of council, and I can say this, to have urgent care for the most vulnerable in our city,” the mayor added.

The problem is that it’s not the City’s decision alone. The building and administration of social housing is handled through the County of Wellington, and any harm reduction housing built even inside the City limits has to be approved by the County.

In a November 14 article in the Wellington Advertiser, it was reported that the County’s social services committee is moving forward with its own process, looking to acquire a site for the construction of 10 container homes, and applying for seed granting from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The City’s motion might be seen as getting ahead of that process being directed by the primary administrator on social housing.

It’s worth noting that harm reduction housing is only one specific need in terms of the homelessness picture in Guelph. According to the 2018 Point in Time Report, there are 322 people experiencing homelessness in Guelph and Wellington. Two-thirds of those people are “temporarily sheltered” including the biggest group of people experiencing homelessness, which is people who “couch surf.”

There are huge gaps in the system, and no new social housing stock has been built in Guelph for the last 20 years. Gibson agrees that there’s a desperate desire to “stop waiting or stop saying it’s someone else’s problem.”

“It’s almost a generational problem we have on this file,” the councillor said.

“The creation and development of rent-geared-to-income or social housing in our city has been something that’s really gone stale for the last few decades, and it’s something that this council, I think, is unified in changing,” Gibson added. “How that looks, where it goes, and who it services are, unfortunately, big questions, and those are questions that don’t have quick fixes.”

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